Special Session Draws to Close
The state legislature adjourned after a short special session during which the House and Senate engaged in court-ordered redistricting of legislative and congressional maps.
Though the focus was on redistricting, other legislative committees met throughout the special session. A joint appropriations committee convened Wednesday, Dec. 6, to hear state agency budget requests, including those from the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE).
Improving Literacy a Focal Point for State Budget Writers
Funding for literacy coaches was a top request from State Superintendent Richard Woods during his presentation to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Sen. Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Matt Hatchett (R-Dublin), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, convened the meeting to get a jump start on preparing the Amended Fiscal Year (AFY) 2024 budget and the Fiscal Year (FY) 2025 budget.
Woods asked committee members to consider adding approximately $6.2 million to GaDOE's FY 2025 budget for 32 regional literacy coaches and a literacy coordinator to support them. The department also requested an additional $7.1 million for testing, most of which would restore funds cut from its budget in previous years.
GaDOE’s FY 2025 budget request includes an increase of $288 million for the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, which is the primary funding source for public schools. Rusk Roam, GaDOE’s chief financial officer, noted that statewide full-time equivalent (FTE) student count increased by only 785 between FY 2023 and FY 2024. According to Roam, two key factors in the QBE funding increase are covering the cost of the teacher pay raise for the full fiscal year and larger numbers of students identified as special education, remedial, ESOL, and gifted, which are higher cost programs.
GaDOE’s requests for the AFY 2024 budget, which covers the current school year, are:
$105 million to cover growth in the QBE formula
$36 million for the charter school supplement for eight new charter schools and enrollment growth
$9 million for the special needs scholarship
The special needs scholarship is a private school voucher for students with an Individualized Education Plan or a Section 504 plan for specific conditions. The additional $9 million would bring the special needs voucher program’s total cost to $45 million.
Woods fielded multiple questions from lawmakers, most regarding literacy. Sen. Freddie Sims (D-Dawson) asked him what accountability measures are in place to ensure that districts will improve literacy instruction and improve student reading. Woods highlighted the accountability measures already in place including Milestones and Lexile scores as well as data from the reading screeners required under HB 538, the Georgia Early Literacy Act. HB 538, which passed during the 2023 session, requires school districts and GaDOE to take specific steps to improve literacy instruction.
Sen. Billy Hickman (R-Statesboro) posed several questions about the implementation of HB 538, including whether the number of literacy screeners the State Board of Education has approved would limit the comparability of data and if there is state funding to help districts purchase screeners. Woods stated there is not funding to help districts purchase screeners, but noted GaDOE is developing a screener that will be available to districts at no cost.
Hickman also asked how the department will ensure that districts comply with HB 538’s requirements. Woods emphasized the department’s commitment to fully comply with the bill’s requirements and its communication to and monitoring of districts regarding those requirements.
Hickman questioned whether GaDOE’s plan was aggressive enough to make progress in improving reading instruction quickly. Woods described the literacy coaches as an effective, sustainable, and prudent approach to supporting districts in improving literacy instruction and is a model that can be replicated.
Tillery said that the state’s reading scores are “scary” and asked Woods to develop a plan beyond literacy coaches to improve student reading. He also asked for an update on teacher shortages, which Woods explained continue to be a challenge, particularly as many educators near retirement age. Tillery requested Woods identify what in the school day is less important and merits less time so that more time can be devoted to literacy. He concluded by asking Woods to tell lawmakers what GaDOE needs to demand compliance with HB 538 to ensure that literacy instruction improves and more students become proficient readers.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will hold joint budget meetings again in January after Gov. Brian Kemp releases his budget proposals for AFY 2024 and FY 2025. PAGE will provide updates when more information is available.
Legislative Day 1 -- Jan. 8. 2024