- State lawmakers and experts disagree on how to update Georgia’s 40-year-old formula for funding public k-12 schools.
- Some point to low grades among schools with high per-student spending as evidence more money might not help struggling schools.
- Others argue additional funds for low-income students could promote smaller class sizes and more teacher attention.
Paying for Georgia’s roughly 2,300 public k-12 and charter schools ranks among the state’s most important taxpayer costs. At $12 billion this year, state spending on schools dwarfs other crucial expenses like Medicaid, law enforcement and mental-health service.
Why, then, have state lawmakers not agreed on how to update Georgia’s nearly 40-year-old system for divvying up public-school dollars – particularly since it doesn’t factor in the funding needs of more than 500,000 students living in poverty and other underprivileged situations?
While some lawmakers believe schools should receive more money earmarked for low-income students, others point to low grades at many high-spending schools as evidence that adding money to the estate’s education budget might not help turn around struggling schools.
State Affairs breaks down the debate over how to improve school funding for low-income students in Georgia.
Spending on Georgia's k-12 and charter schools has tripled over the past 25 years and outpaced the increase in student enrollment. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)
Georgia spent nearly $20 billion dollars in state, federal and local taxes on public schools in the 2020-21 school year, rounding out to an average $11,267 spent on each student. At the same time, more than half of all elementary and middle-schools have either fallen behind or struggled to meet grade-level standards in math, language arts and other courses, state data shows.
Lagging academic progress at many schools with high per-student spending has prompted some experts and lawmakers to question whether schools would really benefit from additional education dollars.
“One thing that’s clear is there’s not really a correlation between how much money is spent and what the test scores are,” said Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “I don’t think (the funding formula) is the most efficient way to go about it.”
Of the top 20 Georgia school districts with the highest per-student spending, only one of them received a “B” grade on the most recent school report card, an assessment tool that tracks test scores, student learning progress and graduation rates, according to the state Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
State data for 2019 – the last complete year of data before the COVID-19 pandemic scrambled test scores and accountability rules – also shows a largely inverse relationship between per-student spending and the accountability letter grades that districts received. On average, the higher the grade, the less those groups of schools spent on each student.
State data shows per-student spending was higher on average for school districts that earned lower scores on the the state's annual school report card assessments in 2019. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)
Georgia House Appropriation Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn), who leads budget talks in the General Assembly, highlighted the gap between grades per-student spending as reason for a cautious approach to revising the state’s school-funding formula – despite regular requests from local school officials and teachers for more money.
“We hear that quite often,” said Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn). “But the thing that no one can ever counter … is I can take you to a school system very close to me right now that is nowhere near the highest spender per student in the state, but is any given year either the first or second-rated school system.”
On the flip side, some lawmakers and experts have questioned the logic of tying per-student spending with test and progress measures when making decisions on funding Georgia’s public schools.
Several national and Georgia-centric studies show poverty and other factors affecting low-income students can dampen academic achievement, regardless of a school’s per-student spending. In 2020, researchers at the University of Georgia and the University of Arkansas found per-student spending “did not appear to influence educational achievement as much as other factors” such as poverty rates and classroom sizes.
“I completely understand folks that see the dollar amounts and think that’s too much money,” said Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute “I think that’s a fundamental understanding of how much more expensive it is to live in Atlanta or Decatur.”
State officials counted 541,000 Georgia students in 2021 as "directly certified" – a key marker of student poverty – who qualified for free meals, food stamps, housing assistance or were homeless. (Credit: Georgia Governor's Office of Student Achievement)
Rather than handing kids money, supporters of including low-income student needs in Georgia’s funding model say the dollars could target specific areas such as by shrinking teacher-student ratios, adding more school counselors, widening internet access and shoring up budgets for buses to make sure kids don’t have a hard time just getting to school.
That approach showed promise via a state-run office set up in 2018 for education specialists to work one-on-one with a handful of struggling schools, most of which enroll large numbers of low-income students. Many of those schools saw test scores improve before the office collapsed in 2020 amid internal strife.
Whether the solution is to increase spending on low-income students or just shuffle around money already in the budget, some lawmakers like state Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) argue that it’s past time for the legislature to seriously tackle the question of how to update Georgia’s school-funding formula.
“In Georgia, we do need to spend more,” Parent said. “But how you do it is very important.”
What else do you want to know about the costs and taxpayer funding of Georgia's public schools? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing: [email protected].
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From funeral homes to helicopters and the courtroom: The other side of Georgia legislators
Ever wonder what a politician does when they’re not … well … politicking? So did we.
Georgia’s 236-member General Assembly is a part-time citizen Legislature whose members are paid a salary of $22,342, plus a daily allowance of $247, to work during a 40-day legislative session that runs from January to March. (The salary is in the bottom quartile of legislator compensation in the U.S.)
We wondered what kind of jobs or financial situations Georgia legislators have that enable them to take three months off each year and fit in all of the other meetings, calls and work that the position demands throughout the year.
State Affairs looked at the mostly self-reported information of the 180 House and 56 Senate members.
Topping the list of occupations? Lawyers.
Doctors, medical practitioners and those who are retired (or semi-retired) from a wide range of professions and careers also top the list.
Some surprising findings: This year’s assembly includes a helicopter pilot, an auctioneer, a jewelry store owner and a pontoon boat maker.
— Jill Jordan Sieder
Have thoughts, tips or questions about the compensation or workload of state legislators? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].
Header image: Lawmakers ready to head home on Sine Die at the Georgia House of Representatives in Atlanta. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Karen Lupton is now retired.
Judicial circuits get $15 million more to pare down big case backlogs
Georgia courts are getting a $15 million injection to help combat case backlogs accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The money will be used to update courtrooms with new audio-visual equipment, cameras, recording devices and other technology.
Nearly half of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits are getting the new round of money, the second and final round of federal American Rescue Act (ARPA) grants slated to be distributed this year. Two of the 24 circuits awarded grants – Flint and Pataula – are first-time recipients. The rest of the money is going to circuits that applied and were approved for more money.
“The bulk of this round of distributions is to modernize courtrooms and things like that,” Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of Georgia/Administrative Office of the Courts, told State Affairs.
For example, according to their backlog response plans, 21 circuits plan to use the money to add newer audio-visual equipment. Approved as a new eligible expenditure by the committee starting this award cycle, over $12 million was requested and awarded to update audio-visual equipment.
Requests also included money for temporary personnel such as senior judges, judges to serve by designation, court clerks, prosecutors, security, investigators, victim support staff and court reporters. There were also requests for supplies, personnel education and training as well as money to rent temporary space to hold court.
“We look forward to the support and efficiencies the audio-visual equipment modernization will provide to move cases faster and without technical delays,” said Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs, chairman of the Judicial Committee.
Why It Matters
Between March 2020 and June 2021, Georgia’s judiciary system operated under a statewide Judicial Emergency Order that placed limits on court operations to protect the health and safety of people working or coming into court during the pandemic. That led to a backlog of criminal and civil cases, especially those requiring jury trials to resolve.
In October 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $110 million in ARPA money to the state’s judicial branch to deal with the backlog, especially serious violent felonies.
The Judicial Council is administering $96 million of that money to eligible courts, prosecutors and related agencies. The remaining $14 million in ARPA money went to the Georgia Public Defender Council for grants to public defenders.
With this latest round of awards, 45 of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits will have received grants since the program began on Jan. 1 , 2022.
Challenges still persist. In addition to the backlog of cases, Boggs said there’s a shortage of attorneys during his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March. And some courts are in need of court reporters.
In addition to dealing with serious felony cases, COVID and court backlogs tied up many civil cases. For example, Atlantans Antonio Fleetwood’s and Lakiela Edwards’ wedding plans were on hold for nearly two years. The couple finally tied the knot in a special Valentine’s Day ceremony at the Fulton County Probate Court.
How successful has the ARPA program been in helping reduce the backlog in Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits? That’s hard to say. There is no statewide clearinghouse, Shaw said, that would give a clear picture of the progress. Or lack of it.
“It’s going to be different in each circuit,” he said. “So a statewide average would be difficult to come by right now.”
State Affairs checked in with Georgia’s 10th Judicial District, which handles civil and domestic cases for 21 counties in northeast Georgia. It has seven circuits and is the third-largest district in the state.
In the first few months of this year, the Augusta Judicial Circuit, the 10th District’s largest circuit, has seen its pending serious violent felonies drop by 37%, District Administrator Tracy J. BeMent told State Affairs.
Alcovy, another circuit in his district, “has done extremely well in prioritizing serious, violent felony trials this past year and has worked down their [cases] quite a bit,” BeMent said.
As of last August, the latest data available, “Alcovy had cleared out 54 serious felonies and was on track to complete almost 49 trial weeks for 2022 amongst their five judges,” Bement added.
In the Toombs circuit, clearance rates are low but they’re prioritizing backlog cases, BeMent said. The Western circuit in Athens continues to have a backlog “as they have a number of cases that have yet to be indicted,” he said.
More work remains to be done.
“The challenge continues to be making sure we have appropriate staff and that we’re fully staffed and that that staff is trained and ready to go,” BeMent said.
The ARPA money has helped add more personnel but it takes time for them to get up to speed, he noted.
So far, the district has received about $8 million in ARPA money, BeMent said, with another $3 million coming from this latest round of ARPA distributions.
Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter recognized The Judicial Council/AOC’s 50th anniversary this year in a Jan. 25 letter. The council was formed while Carter was Georgia governor. The ailing 39th president entered hospice on Feb. 17.
“Now the challenge is considering what is needed from all of you for the next 50 years,” Carter, 98, said in the letter. “What do future generations of judges, lawyers and citizenry need from their judicial branch? What does improving justice look like in the next decade? These are no small questions, but ones I know you will meet with the same spirit that has guided you through the past half-century.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Top image: Inside the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta (Credit: Judge Stephen Dillard)
$69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’
Tammy Joyner and photographer Brandon Franklin hit the road with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) for the Black farms tour. There were so many great pictures, we decided to share the tour with you. Enjoy!
And check out our Q&A with Chairman Carl Gilliard and an agriculture perspective on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget vetoes.
“Make the farm work and serve the community.” — Addis Bugg, Sr., Addis Farm
Joyner and Franklin traveled with the GLBC to several Black-owned farms, including Roberts Vineyard, Addis Bugg Farms, Paul Copeland Farms and Living Waters Farms. They concluded the tour with the “At the Table Roundtable” discussion event with Georgia farmers at Fort Valley State University.
Can you spot the bull?
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: John Deere combine at the state-of-the-art agricultural research facilities at Fort Valley State University. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)
All images and video by Brandon Franklin.
Read more on the ag industry by Tammy Joyner.
Q&A: Even the Energizer Bunny is no match for Carl Gilliard
State Rep. Carl Gilliard has been running at a fast clip for nearly four decades, juggling a ministry, making music and movies, writing books, feeding the hungry, hosting talk shows and performing community activism.
As a teenager, Gilliard founded a local rap group in Savannah to fight gun violence. By the time he was a student at Morris Brown College, the late civil rights activist the Rev. Hosea Williams was his mentor. His activism also put him in the sphere of other influential civil rights icons: the Revs. Joseph Lowery and Ralph Abernathy, and Coretta Scott King.
Gilliard later went on to become a minister himself as well as an author, radio show host and head of a multimedia group that produces documentaries on history. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed the state representative from Garden City to the Georgia Film Commission in 2019.
Gilliard sits on eight legislative committees, including appropriations, creative arts and entertainment, and transportation.
In January, Gilliard ascended to a critical leadership post in the Georgia General Assembly: chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC), the largest caucus of Black lawmakers in the nation.
In that role, Gilliard is determined to get Black farmers solidly entrenched in Georgia’s $69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” the 59-year-old is fond of saying.
Caucus member Sen. Gail Davenport, D-District 44, marveled at Gilliard’s energy. “I don’t know how he gets it all done. He’s busy,” she said. “He has led the caucus very well. He knows South Georgia very well and certainly here in the General Assembly, he has been an effective leader. He works to make sure the Senate understands the position of the House and the House understands the position of the Senate as far as the Democrats are concerned.”
As caucus chairman, Gilliard has made Black farmers and other Black businesses, access to credit, affordable housing and medicine top priorities.
But Black farmers are close to his heart. He recalled years ago when Georgia lawmakers gave millions of dollars to pecan farmers after tornado-ravaged storms damaged their pecan trees.
“We did a bill to give them money. Then we called a special session just to appropriate more money,” said Gilliard, who served on the Appropriations Committee at the time. “Unfortunately, Black farmers were not a part of [getting] that [money].”
State Affairs spoke to Gilliard about his role as chairman, what he intends to do to help Black farmers, and his other top priorities.
How do you see your role as chairman?
As chairman, I’m blessed to be able to walk in the leadership of 74 great senators and representatives from across the state. We represent the melting pot of Georgia.
What has been the biggest takeaway in your first five months as chairman?
Being able to hear from the members and their diverse communities. When we look at the big picture, we have more in common than not in common. That is the reason we did the GLBC rollout in reference to legislation because those are some of the things you hear in communities across the state.
You head the nation’s largest caucus of Black legislators. What are the economic and social issues impacting Black Georgians and how is the caucus poised to address those issues?
The needs of Black Georgians are just like what we went through when the recession hit. Everybody on Wall Street got bailed out while the people on Main Street got left out.
We are constantly playing catch-up. We’ve got to do more: continue education, start more businesses, be able to get a fair share of [state] contracts and be able to deliver services so that we can have generational wealth for future generations.
Black Georgians also have to be included in the top levels of [Georgia’s] $4.4 billion film industry. So the focus is to look at legislation that gives inclusion to levels of opportunity in film.
We must also try to get more Blacks into the business side of film, in reference to the creative opportunities of making and producing films and soundtracks.
Some people feel now that we’re in a post-racial era, there’s no need for a separate caucus for Black legislators. Thoughts?
There will always be a need for a Black caucus in Georgia. There’s always been a need since 1868 with “The Original 33” senators and state representatives who were [initially] not allowed to take office. Fourteen of them were lynched and killed. They had to go through unscrupulous challenges. We still face those challenges when we are in the minority, and we’re trying to get legislation passed for the people who are still facing obstacles. Across the nation, there will always be a need for Black caucuses because of the consensus of the people we represent. We represent over 3 million [Black] people in Georgia.
Who are Georgia’s Black farmers?
When people think about farmers, 99% of the time they just think about those who grow. But you have farmers who have land. You have farmers who have cattle. We even have farmers today [whose business ranges from] cattle to produce to hemp. They just don’t get an opportunity to [publicly] share all that they produce.
Having the resources to upgrade and getting the materials and equipment they need — that’s the biggest need.
They don’t have the workers to help with these farms. And they don’t have the money to hire. They’re just trying to survive. So there has to be a connection to workforce development to help them. The state has workforce development programs that may be able to help some of these farmers. Here again, it’s about us being innovative enough to use what we have to help them.
Have you talked to Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper about your concerns?
Well, we’re going to be talking with the new agriculture commissioner. We’ll give him a chance to get in the door [of his new job] first. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt to say, ‘Let’s meet.’ This will better Georgia because agriculture is the No. 1 entity in Georgia.
What’s the caucus’ next step as it relates to Black farmers?
We’ll push for a bill that would create the Georgia Racial Equity in Agriculture Act. It would establish an Office of Equity in Agriculture, provide training for farmers of color and other historically-underserved farmers and ensure equal distribution of federal aid from the Inflation Reduction Act and Promoting Precision Agriculture Act. And we are gathering information to establish a Georgia Black farmers directory to list all of the farmers who are currently in the state to get them support from consumers as well.
Aside from Black farmers, what are the caucus’ other priorities?
Health care for all Georgians. Looking at the criminal justice system and people who are unfairly on probation for long periods of time when they have a misdemeanor. Some people are still on probation after 20 years. We’ve got to look at different elements of the criminal justice system to see what is fair and what needs to be updated.
We need to make sure we have a fair shake in the minority participation of state contracts. If we’re 30% of the population, then those contracts need to look like the representation of the 30% of minorities in Georgia.
What are some of the events the caucus has planned?
On June 7, we have the Young Leaders Conference at the Capitol for high school and college students. The caucus’ annual conference will be in Savannah July 21 to 23 and we have several for-the-people rallies coming up in Athens, Augusta, Macon and Valdosta. Lastly, we have a Black university tour the first week of September at several Black universities in Georgia.
The Carl Wayne Gilliard File
- Title: Chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus; Democratic state representative, District 162 (Savannah)
- Age: 59
- Hometown: Savannah
- Residence: Garden City
- Occupation: Pastor of Family Life Center in Garden City which operates the Empowerment Center, a program that “gets people on their feet and helps them with everything from housing to credit.” He also has a nonprofit, Feed the Hungry, that has distributed about 1.5 million servings of food in 10 cities in Georgia and four in South Carolina.
- Education: Graduate of Morris Brown College; Doctrine of Divinity from the New Generation School of Seminary.
- Career: While in college, worked as the national youth coordinator for then-presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Became a minister in 1995. Sworn in to the Georgia House of Representatives on May 5, 2016.
- Accomplishments: In the mid-1980s, he founded the Savannah-based rap group Candy Love to combat gun violence. Creator of four national gospel plays. Host of a radio talk show in Savannah as well as gospel TV shows. Founder of Feed the Hungry Inc. in 2009. In 2012, he launched a multimedia communication company called Urban Media and the Gilliard Foundation, which produce documentaries and television specials on history. Author of an upcoming book “Power of the Pen.”
- Family: Married father of four daughters
- What do you do to relax: Watch sports. I am a writer and a filmmaker who does documentaries.
- What’s your ultimate dream? Having a farm.
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: State Rep. Carl Gilliard touring Bugg Farm in Pine Mountain, GA. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)