Kyle Wingfield: Rainy days are here for Georgia's school districts

Kyle Wingfield

Headlines aren’t always what they seem. That’s especially true when it comes to state spending on education.

The state budget approved this past week by the General Assembly trimmed $2.2 billion from the prior year. The pain was distributed fairly evenly, as most state agencies were cut by about 10%. The same was true for public schools, amounting to about $950 million.

If that number seems like a big one, it’s because k-12 schools are the single largest item in the state budget. Their cut was proportionate to their share of all state funding.

Here’s where the trouble with headlines comes in. Everything you just read is true, but it’s not the whole truth. The cries you hear about “balancing the budget on the backs of our students” fail to consider a whole lot more that we know about school finances.

In short, the kids are going to be alright.

You may recall that, when the pandemic hit, the entire state government’s reserves were $2.8 billion. Well, as of June 30, 2019, which was the end of the previous fiscal year, the state’s 180 public school districts held some $3.2 billion in reserves (that and the other figures that follow come from information provided by Rep. Jan Jones, the second-ranking member of the state House).

So, our public schools statewide had more money in reserve than the entire state of Georgia — which itself was better placed than most states.

Collectively, then, school districts’ reserves amounted to almost 3.5 times the amount by which the state cut k-12 spending. That positions them quite well to absorb the budgetary blow.

But wait, you may be thinking. Is this just a matter of some districts having really large reserves and skewing the totals? How do we know all districts can handle these cuts?

Judge for yourself:

• 10 districts had more than 10 times as much in reserve as the state cut they face;

41 districts had at least five times as much;

114 districts had at least three times as much;

165 districts had at least twice as much.

That leaves 15 districts whose state cut would represent at least half of their reserves. Only three of them have less in reserve than the cut they’re receiving.

In other words, the vast majority of Georgia’s school districts have the means to cushion this budget blow.

But even those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

You may recall that the federal government in the past few months has sent trillions of dollars sloshing throughout the country. That money has gone to hospitals, state and local governments, public transit agencies, colleges — and, of course, k-12 schools.

Georgia’s state board of education has already passed along more than $411 million in funding from the federal CARES Act to k-12 districts. In fact, 10 districts received enough from the CARES Act to offset completely their cuts from the state.

Overall, when we add CARES Act funding and local district reserves, just eight districts have less than double the amount of the state cut they face. Only one of them, Chattahoochee County in west Georgia, faces a larger state cut than its combined CARES Act funding and reserves.

That is not the narrative you’re going to hear from the education establishment. You’re going to hear about a return to the “austerity cuts” of the previous decade. You’re going to hear about how the state should have “spread the pain” around more evenly by “raising revenues,” which is the polite way of saying “raising taxes.”

But the pandemic already has "spread the pain" around. I wonder: How many of those people or companies whose taxes would have been raised had reserves to the tune of twice, three times, five times or 10 times their lost income?

Should they have paid more taxes so that the vast majority of school districts could sit on more of their reserves?

It's to their credit that most school districts saved for a rainy day. That day has arrived.

Dalton native Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org).

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