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Lawmakers question early proposals on Ga. school funding

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ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Nathan Deal's plan to overhaul the state's method for funding K-12 schools may face a new challenge, with lawmakers questioning proposals put forward by the governor's staff.

Deal announced his Education Reform Commission in January and initially set an August deadline for recommending changes to the complicated formula used to determine school funding. At the request of lawmakers on a subcommittee charged with that task, Deal recently extended that deadline until December.

The extension makes any significant changes unlikely until the 2017 General Assembly session. But this week, lawmakers on the funding panel collectively questioned some of the strategies Deal's staff has floated, including eliminating teachers' experience or training from the formula.

They also questioned why the group was not discussing the cost of providing a good education, as committees formed by other governors have done.

"I don't think you can talk about a funding formula without talking in some way about cost," said Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican who chairs his chamber's Education committee.

Charles Knapp, a former University of Georgia president appointed to lead the reform commission, has said he doesn't want the panel to get bogged down as previous groups did.

Tippins said he and other lawmakers want to see comparisons of Georgia's funding to other states, and between districts with similar student populations.

Mike Griffith, school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States, said an overhaul can take months to research. Changing the way existing funding is divvied up often "creates winners and losers" as districts see funding go up or down under a new system, he said.

"The first question really is: Do you feel your current funding system is appropriate for the goals you've set for your state?" Griffith said.

Like other states, Georgia cut millions from school funding during the Great Recession. While some of those cuts have been restored in recent years, school spending remained about $500 million short of what the existing funding formula recommends in the latest state budget. In response to the frequent charge of critics, Deal and others have said that the formula never has been "fully funded."

At least one education group praised the lawmakers on the funding group this week. Tim Callahan, communications director for the Professional of Georgia Educators, said the organization was concerned about the focus on eliminating financial credit for teacher experience.

"We certainly applaud members who are standing up to the governor and asking the hard questions," Callahan said. "We think there should be answers provided."

Meanwhile, other subcommittees have focused on early childhood education, programs that let students advance faster, strengthening the state's charter schools and encouraging more alternatives.

Deal said that he's open to recommendations from the other subcommittees to put before lawmakers when they return to the Capitol in 2016.

"If there are components that come out of the subcommittees that can be acted on during the next legislative session, certainly we would like to do that," Deal said recently.

He didn't elaborate, saying those decisions would be up to commission members.

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