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OPINION PAGE - FEBRUARY 23, 2000 - JEFFERSON, GA

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Editorials
The Jackson Herald
February 23, 2000

Simplify funding formula
If there is one glaring error in the governor's education reform legislation, it is that it further complicates how schools are funded in Georgia. Only an education insider can understand the Byzantine formulas used to return state dollars to local school systems.
That should change. There is no reason for state funding to be so complicated. Every citizen should be able to understand how their tax dollars are being used and how their local schools are funded. But we suspect few legislators understand the formulas they're about to vote on.
One of the outgrowths of such complicated funding formulas is that they become distorted. An article in an Atlanta newspaper this week points to Jackson County as an example of how school funding formulas are often distorted and unfair. That article said that under the governor's proposal, the Jackson County School System is considered "wealthy" and would thus lose some state funding. On the other hand, the Jefferson and Commerce city systems are considered "poor" under the formula and would get additional state funds. The reason for the difference is that wealth is measured on a per-pupil basis. Since both city systems accept students from outside their districts, their per-pupil "wealth" is less than that of the county system.
But as anyone who lives in Jackson County knows, such a formula is opposite the reality. Because of the concentration of industrial and commercial property in the two cities, those districts are actually "wealthier" than unincorporated Jackson County. In addition, the various tax exemptions offered to agricultural interests further degrade the county school system's ability to fund education. In Jefferson, for example, 65 percent of the city's tax base is commercial and industrial. In the county school system, commercial and industrial are only 22 percent of the total.
We believe that all children in Georgia should get equal treatment from the state in education funding. But that is not being done and won't be done under the current language in the governor's legislation. If anything, state funding of education will become more complex and distorted than in the past.
That should be fixed. Whatever the other merits of the governor's reform effort, the funding formulas and other hidden mandates should be addressed before the bill becomes law.Simplify funding formula
If there is one glaring error in the governor's education reform legislation, it is that it further complicates how schools are funded in Georgia. Only an education insider can understand the Byzantine formulas used to return state dollars to local school systems.
That should change. There is no reason for state funding to be so complicated. Every citizen should be able to understand how their tax dollars are being used and how their local schools are funded. But we suspect few legislators understand the formulas they're about to vote on.
One of the outgrowths of such complicated funding formulas is that they become distorted. An article in an Atlanta newspaper this week points to Jackson County as an example of how school funding formulas are often distorted and unfair. That article said that under the governor's proposal, the Jackson County School System is considered "wealthy" and would thus lose some state funding. On the other hand, the Jefferson and Commerce city systems are considered "poor" under the formula and would get additional state funds. The reason for the difference is that wealth is measured on a per-pupil basis. Since both city systems accept students from outside their districts, their per-pupil "wealth" is less than that of the county system.
But as anyone who lives in Jackson County knows, such a formula is opposite the reality. Because of the concentration of industrial and commercial property in the two cities, those districts are actually "wealthier" than unincorporated Jackson County. In addition, the various tax exemptions offered to agricultural interests further degrade the county school system's ability to fund education. In Jefferson, for example, 65 percent of the city's tax base is commercial and industrial. In the county school system, commercial and industrial are only 22 percent of the total.
We believe that all children in Georgia should get equal treatment from the state in education funding. But that is not being done and won't be done under the current language in the governor's legislation. If anything, state funding of education will become more complex and distorted than in the past.
That should be fixed. Whatever the other merits of the governor's reform effort, the funding formulas and other hidden mandates should be addressed before the bill becomes law.



Column
By Mike Buffington
February 23, 2000

Education matters, but so does character
Whatever the outcome, the debate over Gov. Roy Barnes' education reform legislation is a healthy exercise. Education is important to every aspect of our society and has long been recognized as the road to individual and social improvement.
Barnes' efforts are the latest in a long string of movements to push public education into keeping up with other social and economic changes. It was only in the 1950s that the old one room school houses were abandoned for more comprehensive and centralized schools. That move accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s as the courts combined schools during desegregation, further centralizing education. Then in the 1980s, QBE hit as an effort to balance education in the state by redistributing wealth from rich areas into poor communities.
This latest effort is not really a revolution - it doesn't, for example, offer vouchers, extend the school year or otherwise modify the basic structure of Georgia's public schools - but it does take QBE a step further by focusing more attention and money on students at the bottom of the academic ladder in grades K-3.
It remains to be seen if that move will have any impact. While it sounds good in theory, I'm not convinced that any amount of money will improve the academic performance of those who come from non-academic home environments.
And therein lies a truth that many political leaders fail to acknowledge - academic learning is important, but so is character. Unless one is motivated to learn, he or she won't. Unless a child has a motivated and supportive family, academics will seldom become a priority.
As Jefferson superintendent Dr. John Jackson often points out, in the distant past, academic failure wasn't as important as it is today. Manual labor jobs that required little technical skills absorbed dropouts and those who couldn't achieve in the classrooms.
Today's economy, however, is different. While manual labor jobs still exist, many tasks have been automated that were once done by hand. That makes education even more important.
But even as this need for an education has increased, the social climate for education has declined. There are too many parents who simply don't care about education and offer little support for their children. In addition, many of the worst problems happen in transient homes where a child is moved from school to school during the year.
No amount of state funding will solve those problems. If the family structure doesn't impart the value of education and character to a child, no public institution can either.
That isn't to suggest that schools should write-off children at the bottom of the academic ladder, but there is a limited amount of resources for public education. To help the bottom 20 percent, we are taking money away from the other 80 percent of our students. They, too, deserve to have their academic needs met by public schools. The relentless focus on the bottom has, in many ways, cheated the rest of the student population.
From that standpoint, Gov. Barnes' legislation is a risky move. If his efforts fail to make some dramatic difference in student performance, and make them quickly, public education in Georgia may become even more fractured. Private schools and home schooling will grow as parents become frustrated with public schools and the bureaucracy of "reform" efforts. The result will be even more pressure in favor of school vouchers and other types of "choice."
Ultimately, if the governor's efforts fail to work, public education in Georgia could lose many of its best students to these other choices, thus even further weakening the standing of public education.
There's a lot riding on this legislation. If it proves successful in improving education, Gov. Barnes will be hailed as a hero and the Democratic Party will be strengthened.
But if it fails, he will be a goat who "lost" both public schools and his party's dominance in state politics.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.


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