Long look at spending record reveals surprises

Kyle Wingfield My Opinion

If you haven’t noticed, education spending is shaping up as one of the biggest issues in this year’s race for governor.

On Wednesday the incumbent, Nathan Deal, made the opening move. He unveiled a $547 million increase in the state’s budget for k-12 schools, along with about $125 million more for four-year colleges, technical colleges and other programs. School districts will be able to reduce furlough days, increase days in school or raise teacher pay.

While one of his primary opponents, state schools superintendent John Barge, called the budget news a “pleasant surprise,” expected Democratic nominee Jason Carter continued to blast the cuts in prior years.

Here’s some free advice for Deal as he campaigns this year: Don’t get into a bidding war about education spending, especially with Democrats, and especially when those Democrats make up a distant minority in the state Legislature. It’s a contest a Republican is not going to win in an election year.

If Deal asks how high spending should go — on education or anything else — the Democrats will always answer, “Higher.” It is far more instructive to look at how things really have changed over the past decade or so.

Deal’s fiscal 2015 budget (for the year beginning July 1, 2014) is the 12th since Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. All 12 have maintained education spending between 54 percent and 58 percent of all state funds spent. It was 56 percent to 57 percent in the years before Republicans took over.

In 2008, when state spending hit a then-record of $19.3 billion, education took up 57.8 percent of the total. Two years later, when it hit a recent trough of $16.6 billion, education took up... 57.8 percent of the total.

State budgets rose every year from 2004 to 2008, and education spending rose faster than the rest of the budget in four of those five years. As the Great Recession took its toll, education spending fared better than the rest of the budget in two of three years.

So when times were good and times were bad, education remained a priority within Georgia’s budget.

The rest of the budget has regained ground faster than education during the recovery, but that’s hardly surprising when education had fared better before that. It didn’t have as much ground to regain.

That’s not to say our public schools haven’t taken a hit since the recession; there’s no denying that. But because education was a priority, other programs took more of a hit.

One well-publicized way in which public schools suffered was in job losses. The New York Times recently reported Georgia has shed education jobs at one of the fastest rates in the country since 2008.

But here again, it’s helpful to look at what happened before times got hard.

According to the federal k-12 statistics that go back to the 1987-88 school year, when your correspondent was a third-grader, Georgia’s best student-teacher ratio came in 2008-09, when for the first time there were fewer than 14 students for every teacher statewide.

During the second term of Joe Frank Harris, who was governor when Georgia created the school funding formula still in use, there were more than 18 students per teacher.

We averaged 16.8 under Zell Miller, 15.8 under Roy Barnes. Under Per-due, it was 14.6.

In 2010-11, the most recent year for which federal data are available, the ratio had risen to 14.9. Data released by the Georgia Department of Education in October indicate there were 15.3 students per teacher during the 2012-13 school year.

That would make it the second-worst ratio under GOP governors — but better than under any Democratic governor since at least the late 1980s, and maybe ever.

Perhaps that context explains why Georgia’s students continue to make gains on the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress despite budget cuts. And why our high-school graduation rate, while still woefully inadequate, is better than it used to be.

The debate we need to have is how we can best use the money we do spend on education: Who can produce the most bang, not spend the most bucks.