ATLANTA — The formula for funding public schools in Georgia dates back to 1985 when the Legislature passed Quality Based Education. It was considered landmark legislation at a time when schools were funded primarily by local taxes.
QBE determines the cost to educate a full-time, public school student. It uses that figure to calculate how much a district “earns” each year in state funding.
With nearly $11 billion of state revenue budgeted for public schools this year through QBE, getting the formula fully funded and fair is important.
“It’s a plurality of the state budget,” said Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Policy and Budget Institute. “But it’s in the [Georgia] constitution as a primary obligation to provide an adequate public education free of charge.”
In developing the “per pupil” cost each year, QBE considers a variety of factors including grade level, teacher staffing and experience, class size, special services, like special education or gifted classes, student-teacher ratio and other direct and indirect costs of education.
While QBE determines how much a school earns in state funding each year, the state’s economy and budget determine how much the school systems actually receive. Since 1985, the QBE has rarely been fully funded, or appropriately adjusted to the current education environment.
Four decades ago when QBE was implemented, technology in classrooms was limited. Students used typewriters to submit papers, phones were still wired to walls, and there were fewer options available for students with unique learning needs.
Georgia’s last three governors have made fully funding QBE a priority, but it will take the will of the General Assembly to see it through.
“I look forward to working with the Georgia General Assembly and other partners to strengthen supports and opportunities for students [and] support for public education,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods, who has made funding the QBE a 2023 priority for the Georgia Department of Education.
“We have an enormous opportunity as we move beyond the pandemic to build a public education system that is truly centered on the needs of Georgia students."
In an amended 2023 budget, Gov. Brian Kemp has requested an additional $745 million for schools and proposed more than $1.1 billion to fully fund the QBE formula.
Committee to review QBE
Last year, the Georgia Senate approved a resolution to form the “Senate Study Committee to Review Educational Funding Mechanisms.” Meetings were held across the state last fall to gather input from the public as it looks to address shortfalls in QBE this session.
The five-member committee is tasked with reviewing the “efficacy and sufficiency” of school funding, primarily the QBE, to determine if it is meeting the needs of Georgia’s 1.7 million public school students and 2,300 public schools.
Owens said the QBE formula is working for the most part, but in serious need of review and updates.
“Georgia has one of the fairer funding systems in the nation,” Owens said during a recent media symposium hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. “But it is getting less fair year after year.”
He noted in the recent past Georgia was among the top 10 states in the country for how much money was directed to public schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged students. Georgia has now dropped to 16, and is one of only six states that does not have targeted funding for students in poverty.
Owens also pointed to the state’s $6.6 billion in surplus revenue above the “rainy day” fund that sits at the discretion of the governor and Legislature.
“So we will all be watching with bated breath on how that money is spent this year [to see if it is used] to increase services for the people of Georgia,” Owens said.
Local districts pay ‘fair share’
QBE is considered a funding partnership between state and local school boards. Local school districts are expected to contribute revenues equal to five mills on the property tax digest to the school system – whether they actually assess it or not. This is referred to as the Local Five Mill Share.
This local share is calculated for each county, then subtracted from the QBE formula before state dollars are allocated. According to the Georgia Department of Education, the Local Five Mill Share in FY2021 equaled $2 billion of funds deducted from QBE. This is the equivalent of $1,176 per student earned but not provided by state funds.
For less wealthy districts with low property values and limited tax revenues, the state provides most of the school funding, and offers “equalization grants” to cover some of the gaps. For wealthier counties with high property values, local taxes still fund the majority of public education.