Georgia schools that have more students with disabilities ‘punished’ with rating formula, policy watchdog says


Education is valuable. It is also costly.

Each one of Georgia’s 181 school districts recently received a rating on a 5-star scale that is supposed to reflect how efficiently each spends to educate students relative to their academic performance.

A 5-star rating means a district is spending less money and reporting high test scores. No school district in Middle Georgia achieved such a rating.

How does the Georgia Department of Education and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement determine how financially efficient a district is?

“It is a combination of problematic formulas squeezed into 5 stars,” Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst for Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said of the rating system, which takes into account the average dollar amount it costs a district to educate a single student for the past three years and combines it with the district’s three-year average score on the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

“It is not helpful at all in understanding how efficient a school is,” Owens said. “Apples to apples comparison is impossible.”

Twiggs County schools ranked the lowest in Middle Georgia with only 1.5 stars; Bibb County and Monroe County schools received a 2.5 star rating; Peach County schools received a 3 star rating; Houston County schools received a 3.5 star rating and Jones County schools received a 4 star rating. For the first time, individual schools also were rated.

Owens contended the annual ratings, required by state law, “hide more than they show.” He also said the state might benefit from “hiring a private consultant to do a true cost effectiveness analysis.”

In an email to The Telegraph, Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick said the department doesn’t have the flexibility to do that.

“State law specifically requires a one to five-star financial efficiency rating for every district and school,” she said. “As it stands, we don’t have the authority or allocations” to address Owens’ concerns.

Making sense of cents

Fourteen percent of students at Jones, Twiggs and Monroe county public schools have a reportable disability, according to the Governor’s Office for Student Achievement.

Schools that serve a higher proportion of students with disabilities are entitled to more money from the federal government.

A student who is cheap to educate is more than often “a gifted student without any developmental disabilities,” Owens said, adding that those students are already more likely to perform well on tests. “So, you’re getting like punished if you’re serving a group of kids that already cost more to get to the same level.”

It costs an average of $12,726 to educate a student in Twiggs County for three years compared to the $9,086 it costs in Bibb County, according to the department of education.

Twiggs County schools Superintendent Elgin Dixon said he was not surprised by the 1.5 star rating given the amount of federal money the district receives.

“It was not shocking to me because they way that it’s calculated,” Dixon said, adding that the district has for the past six years received millions of federal dollars in school improvement grants. “I don’t think the star ratings are reflective of funding sources and the needs of students.”

Bibb County schools Superintendent Curtis Jones said he was not looking forward to seeing the latest financial efficiency ratings.

“We know that it costs more to educate students who have greater needs and that is what is reflected in the ratings,” he said. “We have a higher than normal percentage of students in poverty and with special needs, and students who have experienced trauma in their lives.”

Jones was hired as superintendent in 2015, when Bibb County’s graduation rate was 71.2 percent. Last year, the district had a graduation rate of 78.5 percent.

Dixon was hired as superintendent in 2013. The district’s graduation was 42.2 percent in 2014. In 2018, 95.7 percent of Twiggs County students graduated.

“You cannot put a dollar amount on the value of an education,” he said. “I know I can’t, because I know what a quality education meant to a little boy from a single mother with six children from Adrian, Georgia. What made the difference in my life was the education I received.”

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.