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GUEST COLUMN: Balancing the books in Georgia public education

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Parents, educators, policy-makers and all other taxpayers have a right to know just how much taxpayer funding is spent on Georgia public schools, how this funding has changed over time, and how their public school dollars are being spent.

Unfortunately, official state websites have historically contained misleading information that hinders Georgians’ understanding of the true resource cost of our public education system and the uses of those taxpayer funds.

Specifically, official State of Georgia websites give the impression that taxpayers spend billions of dollars less on K-12 public education than is actually spent. For example, according to the official spending figures on the Georgia Department of Education website, Georgia public schools spent a total of $15.665 billion in fiscal year 2016.

Yet the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, using data provided to it by the same Georgia Department of Education, reports that Georgia public schools actually spent $19.158 billion in FY 2016. This latter amount is consistent with data the GaDOE reports annually to the U.S. Department of Education. In other words, about $3.5 billion in taxpayer funds are “missing” from the official GaDOE spending data on its website.

This report calls on the GaDOE and other state agencies to accurately report current and historical data on total public school spending, average teacher salaries and public school staffing, and to do so in a manner that Georgians can easily access and understand.

Based on complete data, between 1988 and 2014 Georgia public schools saw their revenues increase by 56 percent on a per-student and inflation-adjusted basis. Thus, current Georgia public school students have dramatically more taxpayer resources devoted to their education relative to students of three decades ago.

This massive increase in resources in Georgia public schools was not spent on real salary increases for teachers: Between 1988 and 2014 average teacher salaries actually fell by $26, adjusted for inflation.

Instead, Georgia public schools embarked on a “staffing surge,” increasing the number of teachers and other school personnel at rates significantly in excess of what was needed to accommodate student enrollment growth.

The significant relative increase in employees means that today’s Georgia students have significantly smaller class sizes and even greater access to other school personnel relative to students of three decades ago — and relative to the national average.

These staffing decisions have had a large opportunity cost. Had Georgia public schools increased the number of non-teachers at the same rate as the increase in students, Georgia public schools would have seen $1.08 billion in annual recurring savings.

These funds could have been used (among other things) to give teachers a permanent raise of almost $10,000 per year or to give $8,000 education savings accounts to the families of more than 135,000 students. ESAs would allow these families to choose the schools, tools and educational environments that best meet their children’s needs.

One important consequence of official state statistics “missing” billions of dollars in spending is related to school choice programs.

For example, Georgia provides charter schools with a funding amount that is tied to (and less than) what is given to traditional public schools. With funding for traditional public schools underreported, charter school funding is even lower than it should be.

None of this is intended to cast blame on the current leadership or staff of the GaDOE for this misleading reporting; this underreporting of spending on public schools has occurred for at least the past 20 years.

In the interest of accuracy and transparency, the GaDOE should:

l Immediately cease reporting revenue and expenditure data that exclude taxpayer funds.

l Report total revenue and expenditure data for current and prior years.

l Provide current and historical spending data in an easily accessible, prominent and user-friendly manner.

It is self-evident that government agencies should report accurate public school spending data, make that data transparent and accessible, and allow citizens and policy-makers to have access to comparable historical information that allows them to make their own, fully informed judgments about the desirability of various taxing and spending decisions.

Benjamin Scafidi is a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a professor of economics and director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University. This commentary is based on his Issue Analysis, “Balancing the Books in Education,” released Jan. 26.