Friday, December 19th, 2014
Half-True
EmpowerED Georgia
State support for local schools per pupil has decreased by at least 25 percent over the past decade.

EmpowerED Georgia on Monday, January 7th, 2013 in a chart

Georgia lawmakers cutting education funding, group says

EmpowerED Georgia did its own research to back up its claim about education spending in Georgia.

Are the people who run this state devoting less money to Georgia’s public schools than they did a decade ago?

Yes, says one group.

EmpowerED Georgia, a group of parents and teachers that estimates its membership at 3,500, has a chart on its website claiming the decrease has been at least 25 percent per student since 2002. The group says state lawmakers, through tax credits and other programs, have been overly supportive of private schools in recent years at the expense of public schools.

A PolitiFact Georgia reader saw the claim about the size of the decrease and asked us to investigate.

The EmpowerED Georgia graphic says the decrease is based on information on midterm education spending it found on the Georgia Department of Education’s website.

"The key point I was making is that the state allotments to local school systems over the last decade have decreased by a significant percentage on a per-student, inflation-adjusted basis," said EmpowerED Georgia co-founder Matt Jones, a teacher at Toombs County School in Lyons. "The method of measuring the exact rate of inflation is a technical issue, but the approach used is the most relevant one for state and local governments. We believe that 25 percent is the best estimate possible."

Here’s what EmpowerED Georgia found:

In fiscal year 2002, which began July 1, 2001, and ended June 30, 2002, the state spent about $5.6 billion on education. In fiscal year 2012, which began July 1, 2011, and ended June 30, 2012, the state spent about $7.04 billion.

EmpowerED Georgia divided the total spent by the number of public school students in Georgia, which has increased from nearly 1.5 million pupils in 2002 to about 1.65 million in 2012. It calculated the difference of per-pupil spending between those years and adjusted it for inflation. It used a price index that state and local governments use for various costs.

In fiscal year 2002, EmpowerED Georgia found the average spent on each student was $3,873. Ten years later, the organization said the total was $2,910.

The difference, according to these numbers? A 25 percent decrease.

Case closed, right? Not so, say state education officials.

Those officials say some perspective is necessary here. The state budget, for example, is smaller than it was, when adjusted for inflation. State spending decreased significantly after the Great Recession in 2008. The education budget cannot escape all cuts, education officials say. Class sizes are larger than they were. There’s new technology in the classroom. It’s difficult to make such a comparison, they say.

"They are theoretically being more productive with larger classes," Lou Byars, the department’s director of financial review, said of Georgia teachers.

Jones wrote an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that rejected the state’s argument about the recession’s impact on education spending.

"[T]hat does not explain why k-12 programs have been reduced virtually every year since 2002. Nor does it explain how, under these dire budgetary restrictions, the General Assembly has miraculously been able to find funding for a private school tuition program and a new system of state charter schools," he wrote.

Education officials also questioned EmpowerED Georgia’s methodology.

"The idea of adjusting it for a (consumer price index) or a (government price index) is not a good way to do it," said Scott Austensen, the state Education Department’s chief financial officer.

A government price index uses a combination of elements that state and local governments face when preparing and adjusting a budget, such as construction prices, wages and health care costs. Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a fiscally conservative think tank, questioned the use of such an index.

"We don't like the government spending index because it has little to do with overall inflation and more to do with comparing your rate of growth with other government out-of-control spending growth and has nothing to do with the ability of taxpayers and their income growth to fund the program," McCutchen said.

Georgia State University’s Fiscal Research Center completed a report in November on the recession’s impact on school revenue. Like EmpowerED Georgia, it found state spending on education in Georgia had declined by 25 percent between 2002 and 2011. It, too, used an inflation index of state and local government prices. Overall, education spending has declined by about 12 percent, if you include local and federal spending in the state. Cynthia Searcy, who wrote the GSU report, said EmpowerED’s spreadsheet looked accurate to her, although they used slightly different numbers.

Georgia State University associate professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, who edited the report, believes state and local government price indexes more accurately capture the cost of government to operate.

To sum up, EmpowerED Georgia claims that education spending is down about 25 percent over the past decade.

The larger point about a decrease in education spending is not disputed by state education officials. But they disagree with the use of state and local government price indexes to conclude there’s been a 25 percent decrease. EmpowerED Georgia’s math is supported by the Georgia State study. Still, there are some factors that deserve consideration when examining this claim, such as the recession’s impact on state spending and larger class sizes.

The group’s statement contains an element of truth but needs a lot of context to be fully understood.

Under the definitions of our rating scale, this rates as Half True.

Staff writer Karishma Mehrotra contributed to this article.