Georgia sometimes gets a bad rap for the amount of money the state invests in education and spends on students.
Just last month, for example, a study by a national education organization said Georgia fell six spots to 25th out of 40 states in spending on its pre-kindergarten program over two school years since 2010 due to budget cuts.
But the education funding battles of recent budget years were different 50 years ago. In a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about the 1963 Georgia Legislature, former Gov. Zell Miller recalled the strides made in education by then-Gov. Carl Sanders.
Miller lauded Sanders for putting 56 percent of the state budget into education -- a figure, Miller said, that has not been achieved since.
That percentage seemed rather large, even for the largest portion of state government. PolitiFact Georgia wondered if Miller, who later became a U.S. senator, was correct.
Miller, a North Georgia Democrat and longtime politician, called the 1963 legislative session "the birth of modern Georgia." That was the year that the courts ordered that Senate districts be reapportioned to reflect populations, which meant more power for Georgia’s cities and minorities. That 1963 session saw the first African-American senator (Leroy R. Johnson), and the installment of Sanders as governor.
Sanders, also a Democrat, became governor at age 37, the youngest in the nation at the time, after running on a platform of a new, modern Georgia. He’s known as Georgia’s first New South governor, and the first modern governor elected by popular vote. He served one term, from 1963 to 1967; ran unsuccessfully for the post in 1970 against Jimmy Carter, then left politics to practice law.
In the book "Carl Sanders: Spokesman of the New South," author and historian James F. Cook repeats a similar statistic about Sanders’ education investment: "... he (Sanders) made education his first priority and directed nearly sixty cents of every tax dollar into education."
The book passage says that under Sanders’ leadership, 10,000 new teachers were added to Georgia’s schools, and more schools and classrooms were built than under any previous administration. The Governor’s Honors program and the junior college network were started, four junior colleges were elevated to four-year status and a new dental school was established.
As for funding, $176.5 million was appropriated for University System construction, and average faculty salaries increased 32.5 percent, moving Georgia from 10th to fourth place among Southern states.
"I knew that the more people we could educate in Georgia, the better off the state would be in every capacity, politic wise, business wise, otherwise," Sanders said in a 2007 Georgia Public Broadcasting interview.
The kicker, according to Cook’s book: Despite Sanders’ extensive education spending, the former governor left $140 million in the treasury -- the largest amount ever left to a succeeding governor up to that time.
In addition to the historical accounts of Sanders’ spending, we also checked with the state Education Department and state budget office for more help.
Financial reports of all school systems kept by the Georgia Department of Education were available from 1996 to 2012. Those records showed that one year, 1998, the education portion of the state’s budget exceeded Sanders’ 56 percent, by 2 percentage points. For the available reporting years, the data showed four years -- 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2001 -- where the education allocation tied Sanders’ 56 percent figure.
It must be noted that some of the budgets in the Education Department data included some state funding for Georgia schools that was not available during Sanders’ tenure, such as lottery funds.
Data compiled and provided by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget included information from Sanders’ first year in office, 1963, through fiscal year 2014. The data substantiated Miller’s claim about Sanders’ education allocation reaching 56 percent of the budget, but also showed that the allocation reached 58 percent for schools during his third year in office, 1965.
The budget office data also showed the education portion of the state budget either equaled or exceeded the 56 percent allocation from 1964 through 1970, and from 2009 to 2011. Agency officials noted that the data included lottery and tobacco settlement funds. Those dollars weren’t available to Sanders. Also of note, the amounts from 1963 to 1974 -- which covered Sanders’ term -- included money for capital projects, like buying land and building facilities.
How was Sanders able to accomplish his education goals?
"I had the budget power to put together a package of bills to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish because the (House and Senate) didn’t have their own budget officers," Sanders, 87, told PolitiFact Georgia in an interview from his law office. "I didn’t realize I would be the last governor with that power."
So does Miller’s claim get fully funded?
He said former Gov. Carl Sanders allocated 56 percent of the state budget to education, a level that has not since been achieved. Historical accounts and actual state education and budget data confirmed Sanders’ allocation levels. The data also showed a few years since Sanders when the levels have reached that amount, but those years included funding, such as lottery and tobacco settlement dollars, that were not available to Sanders.
Overall, it is important to note that over the past 50 years, methods for funding education in the state, the available revenue streams and the definition of what constitutes education have changed numerous times. Still, data showed that education has always accounted for more than half of the budget in each of those years.
We rate Miller’s claim Mostly True.
Staff intern Karishma Mehrotra contributed to this article.