Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

In school-funding debate, err on the side of flexibility

The charge Gov. Nathan Deal gave his Education Reform Commission back in February was ambitious: Propose an overhaul to the state’s long-debated school funding formula, among other things, within six months. As members met Tuesday, it became clear why they’re going to blow past their Aug. 1 deadline.

Because no one can agree on much when it comes to changing the way more than $8 billion in state money is spent, that’s why.

Do experience and advanced degrees make for more effective teachers, or not? How do we fairly measure a teacher’s effectiveness anyway? Should the state be more concerned about starting salaries, or about what the average teacher makes? What about benefits and retirement?

And that’s before we even get to how to allocate money based on student characteristics and needs.

Previous efforts to change the Quality Basic Education formula, established in the mid-1980s, have flopped precisely because the stakes are so high and agreement so rare. That is unsurprising in a state with 180 school districts that range from 187 students (in Taliaferro County) to 172,693 (in Gwinnett). More than half of those districts have fewer total students than the state’s largest high school (Gwinnett’s Mill Creek, with 3,776).

Common ground will always be hard to find among districts that are equally diverse when it comes to race, income and geography (rural vs. urban vs. suburban). The answer is to require as little agreement as possible.

Let the state set standards and measurements for student achievement. Tie money to the student, with allowances made for characteristics around which there’s a general consensus, such as more money for English language learners, kids from poor families, students in early grades who need to reach key literacy benchmarks.

Beyond that, let districts have as much flexibility as possible in deciding how to spend the money.

The advantage of advanced degrees is a truly academic question in poor, rural counties that have trouble attracting any teachers at all. If those school districts believe they’d be better positioned to recruit and retain good teachers by paying more for younger, less-credentialed educators and then awarding raises based on performance, why should the state stand in the way?

Or consider a district that wants to experiment with larger class sizes (or digitally delivered instruction) in some subjects and smaller class sizes in others, with varying pay levels as appropriate. Why should it be hamstrung by a statewide salary scale?

Ditto for a district that wants to take advantage of increasingly frequent career-switching by hiring subject-matter experts who have no intention of teaching long enough to qualify for a pension. They might prefer a higher salary and a portable, defined-contribution retirement account over the smaller paycheck and more-generous pension that traditionally attracts people to a teaching career.

As we have heard so many times, public schools don’t get to choose their students. But they do get to choose their teachers. Likewise, while most students don’t have real education options, many teachers can change employers. One-size-fits-all doesn’t make any more sense for teacher pay than it does for student learning. Recognizing that is the truly bold path forward.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.