ATLANTA —Black students in Georgia are falling short in the public school system — but research indicates it may not be their fault.

Researchers and advocates say decades of racial inequality in public schools needs to be addressed.

Georgia is one of the eight remaining states — one of four in the deep South — that doesn’t supply additional funds for schools serving high numbers of low-income students. Lawmakers have suggested amending the state’s antiquated school funding formula to account for those schools.

A Senate study committee on the educational development of African American children recommended changes to the funding formula that would increase support for schools that historically serve minority and low-income populations.

Black children fall behind their white peers in test scores and college readiness — especially in rural areas. Education officials and child development experts said the state needs to lend a hand in evening out inequities in public school funding.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, black students made up 38.9% of Georgia’s student population in 2018.

Across the country, 56% of black students reside in the South, according to research from the education nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners.

Black youths are over-represented in disciplinary actions and low academic achievement while under-represented in post-secondary schooling, Tiffany Taylor, deputy superintendent of policy, flexibility and external affairs at the department of education, said during committee meetings.

Funding for low-income students

Schools in rural parts of the state show the largest racial diversity and often highest poverty levels but have seen no additional financial support through the long-time funding formula which was adopted in 1985.

Fred Jones, director of government affairs for the Southern Education Foundation — a nonprofit that advocates for low-income and students of color in the South — said the historic irony is after the Civil War, black leaders and the first black legislators pushed for universal education through the tax system.

"We say a lot of times that really the gift of public education came from black people," Jones told CNHI. "It was really our efforts, but it has always, always been hit with a tremendous amount of resistance."

Now, it is those communities in rural Georgia, he said, that see the most disservice.

During the past three years, the rural student population in Georgia jumped by nearly 90,000 to almost half a million students, according to the Rural School and Community Trust November 2019 national report — the change mainly because of redistricting school districts once classified as "towns" or "suburban" to "rural" due to declining population.  

Students in rural Georgia show “dire college-readiness results” because of the low percentage of high school students enrolled in AP and dual credit courses, the report states.

"What we hear from school districts is just this deep, deep, deep inequality and resource inequity," Jones said. "We have the richest places in the state and really across the country receiving — in some cases — tens of thousands of dollars more than low-income communities in areas that just don't have a strong tax base to ensure that there's some type of equalization."

GBPI Black Belt districts

A report by Stephen Owens, policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute think tank, concluded areas of the state that had historically large enslaved populations are “systematically disadvantaged” compared to the rest of Georgia.

“This kind of crescent of counties from Columbus to Augusta is more rural, it has more students of color and also the schools serve higher portions of students living in poverty,” Owens told CNHI. “I felt like it was really important to recognize that the differences we see and how like black students are doing on state tests, and their schools is not an accident, and it didn't just happen out of the blue in 2019.”

Schools in what has been dubbed in the report as the “black belt” have faced decades of less investment, Owens said. Georgia needs to set aside specific funding for students who are living in poverty, he suggested. Thomas and Baldwin counties are included in the "black belt" areas.

Georgia is one of eight states that doesn’t give extra funding for schools that serve students living in poverty, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit that looks at education funding disparities.

Owens recommended to the committee that Georgia create an “opportunity weight” within the funding formula to provide additional support for low-income districts, bolster preexisting need-based grants and reinvest in pre-kindergarten programs.

Issues created by disinvestment through a variety of funding policies can play out in many ways and require many different solutions, he said. 

“Schools end up being a microcosm of their communities,” Owens said. “So if we see what we want to say are failing schools — even though I don't like that term — it usually means that there's been an issue in the community.”

Adding the additional weight to the funding formula is not a partisan issue, Owens said.

Budget uncertainty

In 2015, following a year-long review of the state’s education system, the Education Reform Committee created under former Gov. Nathan Deal recommended for the first time Georgia add a weight to the formula for “economically disadvantaged students.”

Lawmakers this year recommended the same change as well as look for ways to expand access to quality teachers and higher-level programs for disadvantaged students.

But the formula adjustment would take an increase in funding from tax revenue from the state, which has been consistently falling in fiscal year 2020.

According to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office, “year-to-date,” net tax revenue collections have decreased by roughly $33.6 million or down .3% compared to last year.

November alone decreased in net tax collections by $22.4 million or 1.2%.

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to cut 4% from their budgets this fiscal year, followed by 6% next year to do away with “wasteful spending.”

Jones said the effect of compounding racial disparities in low-income areas will become more noticeable over time. 

"What we do know is moving forward in this country," he said, "is in order for individuals to have some type of high paying job or high paying career ... is going to require some type of post-high school education. And the fact is the majority of students in this country, including students of color, are not ready for college."

Without a change in how the state supports low-income students, Jones said, we will continue to graduate students who are not prepared for college.

Additional funding for education has proved “100 times over” improved outcomes for K-12 students, Owens said, but there is no one policy that caused the disparities and no one solution.

“This isn't going to be the one thing that needs to be done,” he said. “There would need to be a recognition that like rural Georgia matters just as much as the rest of the state and that would take additional investment.”

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