Guide to Education in Georgia


“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men…”

Horace Mann, 1848


Education is the key to our state’s economic prosperity, and providing a good education to every child is essential to ensuring that individuals, families and communities can flourish. Students who successfully complete high school have higher lifetime earnings than their peers, better health, decreased mortality rates, commit fewer crimes, lower teen pregnancy rates and are more involved in their communities.

With so much at stake, a child’s zip code should not determine the quality of his or her education. We have the power to change that, too. This guide is designed to give Georgians a better understanding of the state’s education policy landscape, and which levers we can pull to ensure students living everywhere in our state receive a quality education that prepares them to succeed in school, the workplace and life.

FIGURE 1 Total Number of Public and Private Schools, 2018

FIGURE 2 K–12 Student Enrollment, 2018Georgia Department of Education Student Enrollment by Grade Level (PK-12)


FIGURE 3 Student DemographicsGeorgia Department of Education Enrollment by Ethnicity/Race & Gender

Percent of Students with Limited English Proficiency (2016-17) 8%
Percent of Students with Disability (2016-17) 11.6%
Percent of Students Eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Meals (2016-17) 62%

FIGURE 4 High School Graduation RatesGeorgia Department of Education: Graduation Rates (2017)

Education System


There are 180 local school districts in Georgia, 159 county systems and 21 independent city school systems. District vary widely in size. The largest district, Gwinnett County, serves approximately 175,000 students while the smallest district, Taliaferro County, serves fewer than 200 students. Fourteen districts in Georgia serve fewer than 1,000 students while six systems serve more than 50,000.Financing Georgia’s Schools: A 2015 Briefing, Georgia State University Local school districts are under the management and control of locally-elected boards of education.

At the state level, the State Superintendent is the administrative head of the Department of Education. The State Board of Education (SBOE), which is comprised of 14 members who represent each of our state’s congressional districts, sets the policies and regulations for Georgia’s public education system. The Superintendent is elected statewide every four years, whereas members of the SBOE are Governor-appointed and serve seven-year terms.

Standards, assessments and accountability

The SBOE is responsible for adopting Georgia’s K–12 academic standards, which are developed with input from K–12 classroom teachers, postsecondary educators, representatives from the business community, parents and other educational organizations. Our current standards, the Georgia Standards of Excellence, guide instruction in public schools across the state and are de- signed to ensure that students who graduate from high school are college, career and life ready. The standards can be found at

The Georgia Milestones Assessment System (Georgia Milestones) is a summative assessment system for students from third grade through high school. This assessment measures how well students have mastered the knowledge and skills included in state content standards across core subjects of English/Language Arts (ELA), mathematics, science and social studies. Since the federal law requires that states administer assessments in these areas as well, the Georgia Milestones are designed to serve both the federal and state requirements, reducing the number of assessments students must take overall. The following assessments comprise the Georgia Milestones system:

  • Grades 3–8: English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math
  • Grades 5 and 8: Science and Social Studies
  • High School: The SBOE has designated 10 courses for End-of-Course (EOC) Assessments

Student performance on the Georgia Milestones assessment can assist in gauging the quality of educational opportunity in our state. The assessments are also a key component of our state’s K–12 accountability system, the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI). The CCRPI is calculated by the Georgia Department of Education and approved by the SBOE and considers the following factors: content mastery, student progress, closing gaps in student performance, readiness and, for high schools, graduation rates.

FIGURE 5 Schools by Letter Grade, 2017Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Georgia School Grades Report, School Level Data 2017

In 2017, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation to establish a series of supports and interventions for the state’s lowest-performing schools. The legislation also created the position of Chief Turnaround Officer (CTO), which reports directly to the SBOE. The CTO is tasked with partnering with schools and districts across the state to put in place the following turnaround levers: an infrastructure that supports strong instruction in every classroom, strong leadership at every school, a talent management system to recruit and retain effective staff and support and accountability.

Georgia also administers the Georgia Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (GKIDS) assessment to students in kindergarten. Scores from GKIDS provide teachers with valuable information to develop appropriate instructional supports for each of these young learners.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, indicates what American students know and can do in various subject areas. The NAEP assessments in math and reading are administered every two years. In the 2017 administration, 35 percent of Georgia fourth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level in mathematics, while only 31 percent of Georgia eighth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level in mathematics. In 2017, 35 percent of Georgia fourth- and eighth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level in reading. Results, including how Georgia students perform in comparison with their peers students across the nation, can be found on NAEP’s website:

FIGURE 6 Performance Trends, Nation’s Report Card, 2005–2017Nation’s Report Card, State Profiles “Georgia Complete Results”


Parents deserve transparent and accessible information about public schools so they can explore, interpret and use facts to make the best decisions for their children. It’s equally important for policymakers to have access to this information as well. Accurate and comparable data will help state leaders identify bright spots in our public school system as well as identify pressing issues in order to investigate and develop potential policy solutions.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement provides information about public schools through the following site: This website provides reports for all public K–12 schools in Georgia, including A–F letter grades based on school performance which summarizes a school’s performance in a way that is commonly used and understood. Stakeholders can access information regarding the characteristics of the student body within individual schools and districts, comparisons to other schools serving students in the same grades and performance on statewide assessments.

Local control

Georgia offers school districts an unprecedented amount of local control through flexibility contracts between local school boards and the SBOE. With this innovative law, local school districts can choose between three governance models: the Strategic Waivers School System model, the Charter System model and the Title 20 model. In the 2017–18 school year, there were 135 strategic waiver school systems, 43 charter systems and 2 Title 20 systems.Georgia Department of Education School System Flexibility

With both the Strategic Waivers School System model and the Charter System model, local school districts receive increased flexibility from certain state laws and regulations in exchange for greater accountability in the form of improvements in student achievement. In Charter Systems—unlike in the Strategic Waivers School Systems—there is an emphasis on school-based governance and decision-making. Under a Title 20 model, districts choose not to exercise any flexibility waivers and operate under all existing laws and regulations.

While it is often a point of confusion, it is worth noting that despite similar sounding names, Charter Systems are not the same as charter schools. Schools within a Charter System are governed by the local school board, while charter schools are governed by independent, non-profit governing boards. While both models emphasize school-level governance, one has no effect on the other and they are separate and distinct models.

High-quality early learning opportunities

Children go through amazing developmental growth during the first three years of life, and experiences during these years critically shape their future development. For instance, children who attend high-quality early learning programs are more likely to graduate from high school, have a job and earn higher wages; they are less likely to drop out of high school, depend on social services or commit crimes.Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students Strategic Framework (2017-2020) Georgia leaders have done a commendable job prioritizing policies that ensure all children have access to excellent child care and pre-K programs.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), one of only three state-level agencies in the country focused on education for our youngest learners (birth to age 5), administers the Georgia Pre-K Program, a voluntary, lottery-funded program for 4 year olds. Georgia Pre-K classes are available in all 159 counties and may be offered by local school systems or private pre-school providers.Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning Evaluation of Georgia’s Pre-K Program The Georgia Pre-K program serves approximately 80,000 4 year olds per year, which is approximately 60 percent of the eligible 4-year-old population.

The Georgia legislature has recently funded a series of ongoing studies to evaluate Georgia’s Pre-K Program. The studies, conducted by independent researchers, found that children who attend Georgia’s Pre-K Program make significant gains across all learning domains, progress at a greater rate than to be expected for typical growth and sustain these academic gains through at least first grade. (Results from later grades are not available yet.)

DECAL also supplies licenses to child care providers across the state, and helps parents make more informed decisions about child care through the Quality Rated Improvement System. The system supports existing child care centers to improve their quality, identifies quality-rated child care centers and then makes the ratings publicly available. More information can be found at Sixty-five percent of all licensed child care programs in the state are participating in Quality Rated; 32 percent of all licensed programs have completed the process and earned a one, two or three-star rating.

DECAL also administers the Childcare and Parent Service (CAPS) program, which provides financial assistance to low-income families by subsidizing child care at early education programs. Eligibility for this program is based on the family income and satisfying a requirement for the parent to work or attend school or a training program. Approximately 43,000 children have an active CAPS scholarship in Georgia; DECAL tiers the scholarships to provide additional funding for families that choose high-quality programs for their children. Additionally, DECAL awards subsidy dollars directly to Quality Rated child care programs, to ensure that eligible families have access to high quality child care. More information about the CAPS program can be found at

Empowering Parents

No two children are alike, so we cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to education. On the contrary, every student should have access to a high-quality education that meets their own unique educational needs—and their parents know these needs the best. That’s why Georgia should empower parents with options, and with the necessary support to become even more informed about, and involved in, their child’s education.

Charter schools

Charter schools are public schools governed by nonprofit boards that are freed from many state and local regulations, in exchange for increased accountability. If a charter school does not meet the terms of its contract, the school is not eligible to receive a renewal, and it closes. As public schools, charters have open enrollment and do not charge tuition. Charters must admit all students who live in their attendance zone and would like to attend the school. If charters receive more applications than they have open seats, state law requires a lottery to determine which students will be admitted.

FIGURE 7 Georgia Charter School Enrollment Growth, 2011–2017Georgia Department of Education

FIGURE 8 A 2015 survey of likely general election voters in Georgia, conducted by McLaughlin and Associates, revealed:


The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University conducted a comprehensive study to look at the impact of charter schools on student performance in 2013. The 16-state study found that students attending charter schools had greater learning gains in reading (resulting in eight additional days of learning) than their peers, and equivalent learning gains in mathematics to their peers.Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes National Charter School Study 2015, CREDO conducted a study specifically focused on urban charter schools in 41 regions across the country. The study found that urban charter schools on average “achieve significantly greater student success in both math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading” in a school year.Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes Urban Charter School Study (page v)

Students are not the only ones who benefit from high-quality charter schools. Research has found there are broader, community-wide benefits in areas where charter schools are located, including increased home values.The Effect of Start-up Charter Schools on Nearby Property Values,, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Arkansas examined charter schools and district-run schools in eight cities across the country, including Atlanta, to determine if charter schools were more cost-effective and produced a higher return on investment in terms of academic performance per dollar spent. In all eight cities, the charter sector outperformed the district schools on both measures.Bigger Bang, Fewer Bucks? The Productivity of Public Charter Schools in Eight U.S. Cities -productivity-of-public-charter-schools-in-eight-u-s-cities.pdf

In Georgia, charter schools can be authorized by local school boards or by the State Charter Schools Commission (SCSC), which was created by Georgia voters in the 2012 amendment to the Georgia constitution. Charter school authorizers approve and renew charters. They also monitor performance, ensure compliance with state and federal law and enforce the terms of the charter.

There are 79 start-up charter schools across the state of Georgia, including 50 locally-approved charters and 29 schools approved by the SCSC. Approximately 50,000 students attend start up charter schools in Georgia.

According to a report released by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools in January 2018, Georgia ranks 27th in their ranking of states by the strength of their public charter school laws.National Alliance of Public Charter Schools State Ranking, 2018 It is a notable decline as Georgia ranked 4th in the nation in 2010 evidencingNational Alliance of Public Charter Schools State Ranking, 2011 the strides made in other states while Georgia’s charter school law and funding system have remained largely unchanged. During the 2018 legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly made significant strides toward greater funding equity for public charter schools operating across the state. Even still, charter schools approved by the SCSC are funded by the state based on a calculation that prevents schools from receiving more than the statewide average funding, even if the students they serve come from districts where they earned significantly more money. As a result, the SCSC is often not a viable option for charter schools attempting to serve students from high-cost districts across the state. In some metro areas, the funding gap for students attending traditional public schools compared with those attending public charter schools is greater than $5,000 per pupil.

Unlike other public schools, charter schools do not typically have a facility made available to them and must therefore use a large percentage of their per-student funding on facility costs. Providing a facility grant to all state- and locally-approved charter schools would reduce this financial barrier, allowing them to direct more of their dollars where they matter the most: to students, not buildings.

Student scholarship tax credit program

For the past 10 years, Georgia’s student scholarship tax credit program has allowed taxpayers to make a contribution to nonprofit Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) who then use those funds to award scholarships to eligible families, helping them pay for private school tuitions and fees.

To qualify to participate in this program, students must have attended a public school for at least six weeks immediately prior to receiving the scholarship, or must be entering pre-K, kindergarten or first grade. For students whose homes are zones for low-performing schools, this requirement is waived.

The program, which until 2018, was capped at $58 million, serves over 14,000 students with an average scholarship value of $3,776.Georgia Department of Revenue. Calendar Year 2016 Qualified Education Expense Credit Report. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Department of Revenue, 2017. While the program does not mandate a participating family to be below a particular income, limited reporting provided by the Department of Revenue shows that more than 75 percent of the scholarship recipients have a family income of less than $66,000. Legislation passed in 2018 includes more stringent reporting requirements that will soon show the average scholarship size across more informative income quartiles, now based on the percentage of the Federal Poverty Level.

On January 2, 2018, for the fourth year in a row, the $58 million cap was met on the very first day pledges were allowed. Since 2016, contributions by donors to student scholarship organizations exceeded more than $100 million, requiring the Department to prorate donations to meet the statutory cap limitation.

During the 2018 legislative session, the legislature responded to the tremendous demand for this program by passing House Bill 217, which raises the cap on the program to $100 million for the next 10 years. While this increase will allow thousands more students to attend the school of their parents’ choice, it still falls considerably short of meeting the current demand for the program.

Special needs scholarship program

Since 2007, Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program (sometimes referred to as the “SB 10 program”) has allowed parents of students with special needs to choose the public or private educational setting that best meets the needs of their child. In the event that the parent chooses a private school setting, they receive a scholarship—the amount of which is based on the services that the child received in public school. The scholarship is valued up to the amount of the state funding the child would have received in the public school setting. In order to be eligible, a student must have been enrolled in a Georgia public school for all of the previous school year.

During the 2016–17 school year, more than 4,000 students with special needs benefitted from the program with an average scholarship amount of $5,722. In recent years there have been proposals to allow parents to utilize this money for more than tuition and to allow parents to use this funding for other expenses associated with a child’s education, such as therapy, adaptive technology or specialized curriculum expenses the student may incur.

Education savings accounts

Many students are assigned to schools that fail to meet their unique needs. Unlike several neighboring states, Georgia does not have an Education Savings Account (ESA) program for families, which would provide an alternative to the one-size-fits-all education structure. An ESA allows parents who are choosing an option outside of public school to have their child’s per-pupil education funds deposited into a government-authorized savings account with restricted educational uses. Those funds can typically cover private school tuition and fees, tutoring, therapies needed by the child and other educational expenses. Rather than forcing ‘use it or lose it’ decisions on families, states allow a portion of any unspent funds to roll over from year to year and, in many cases, after a student graduates from high school, the remaining balance can be utilized to cover higher education expenses as well.


Teacher employment/quality

Research says that teachers have a larger impact on student achievement than any other school-based factor.Teachers Matter: Understanding Teachers’ Impact on Student Achievement. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012. year, the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) grades states on how well their programs and policies raise the quality of the teachers in their schools. In 2017, NCTQ gave Georgia an overall grade of B− after reviewing 37 categories of teacher policies including teacher preparation, hiring, evaluation, compensation and retention. While most decisions related to teacher employment and quality are driven by local factors, there are some which the state helps guide, occasionally by law, but primarily through the Georgia Professional Standards Commission (GaPSC).

In 1991, the Georgia General Assembly created the GaPSC with the mission of building “the best prepared, best qualified and most ethical educator workforce in the nation”. It is the GaPSC that is responsible for overseeing teacher preparation, certifying professionals to teach in Georgia and ensuring that certified employees comply with ethics rules and professional standards.

Recently, the state has undertaken efforts to ensure educators are appropriately evaluated and supported. Georgia teachers are evaluated through the Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES), a multi-measure system that incorporates three primary components: 1) in-class observations, which make up 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, 2) student growth, which accounts for 30 percent of the evaluation and 3) adherence to professional growth plans, as determined by the local board of education, which makes up the remaining 20 percent of the evaluation.Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System

Teacher pay

Georgia sets a salary schedule for public school K–12 teachers across the state. Local districts will often provide a local supplement in addition to the state salary schedule.

In the 2017–18 school year, the base salary for a first-year teacher without any advanced degrees was $34,092.Georgia Department of Education Teacher Salary Schedule FY ‘18 earn additional funding from the base teacher salary schedule for years of service and advanced degrees earned. In the 2015–16 school year, Georgia’s average teacher salary was the third highest in the 16 states that comprise the Southern Regional Education Board, behind only Maryland and Delaware.Southern Region Education Board Elementary and Secondary Education Teachers on data from the 2014–15 school year, when adjusted for cost of living, teacher compensation in Georgia ranks seventh nationally.Ed Surge Where do Teacher Salaries Really Go the Furthest

FIGURE 9 Annual Teacher Salary, 2016

AVERAGE BEGINNING TEACHER SALARY $40,392Quick Facts About Georgia Public Education 2016


The Teachers Retirement System of Georgia (TRS) provides a defined benefit plan which guarantees a monthly benefit—based on a member’s final average salary and service—and which is payable for a member’s life. It may also be transferred to a member’s spouse or beneficiaries. The average teacher in Georgia retires when he or she is 59 years old, and has completed 30.5 years of service when they retire. About 7,000 Georgia teachers retire each year.

A Georgia public school teacher must work for at least ten years in order to vest and qualify for a minimum pension. According to an analysis by Bellwether Education Partners, only 32.9 percent of educators qualify for employer-provider benefits while the remainder forfeit the contributions made by the district and state. Further, when comparing what an individual teacher puts into the system against what they will receive, Bellwether estimates that only a quarter of teachers will break even.Retirement Reality Check: Grading State Teacher Pension Plans, 2017

In FY 2017, the TRS retiree payroll was $4.5 billion, and this funding is guaranteed by the State of Georgia. In Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, the Georgia General Assembly appropriated a combined addition of $585 million for the employer contribution into TRS, in an effort to shore up the system.Governor’s Budget in Brief FY‘18 and Governor’s Budget Report FY‘19 retirees currently receive an automatic cost of living adjustment regardless of the state’s economic well being.

There have been recent efforts by members of the legislature to remove the automatic adjustment or study what offering a 401(k)-type plan could mean for teachers and the system. To date, those measures have not passed.

Current teachers and retirees need to know with certainty their promised pension benefits will be there when they need them. Policy makers should also be willing to study the educator pension system to ensure the structure is creating a sustainable retirement benefit that gives young teachers more control over their benefits, and greater portability of those funds.

Education Funding

According to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey, Georgia ranked 40th in the country for the per-pupil average in funding (state, local and federal) with an average per-student investment of $10,817 (based on FY 2015 figures).U.S. Census Bureau 2015 Public Education Finance Report Nationally, the average that year was $13,246.

Federal funding

The federal government provides assistance to states and schools to supplement, not supplant, state and local support. In 2017, Georgia received near $1.1 billion in federal government funding, representing roughly 6.5 percent of combined revenue spent on education in our state. The structure of education finance in America reflects the prominent role that states and local jurisdictions play in financing education at all levels.

The President’s FY 2017 Budget provided $69.4 billion in discretionary funding and $139.7 billion in new mandatory funding for the U.S. Department of Education. The two biggest programs in which the federal government invests are No Child Left Behind Title I Grants to local school districts ($15.4 billion) and IDEA Special Education State Grants ($11.9 billion).2017 U.S. Department of Education Budget Fact Sheet, the federal contribution to elementary and secondary education includes not only Department of Education (ED) funds, but money from other federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.U.S. Department of Education: The Federal Role in Education

State funding

The Georgia Constitution provides that the State of Georgia has a “primary obligation” to provide public education to the citizens. The Quality Basic Education Act (QBE) provides the legal framework for school funding and operations. The largest share of revenue spent on education comes from the state and is allocated through the QBE formula. The state has consistently devoted the majority of its budget to ensure an educated citizenry. In FY 2019, 54 percent of the state budget went to this effort.Governor’s Budget Report law, the state of Georgia must balance its budget each year and in FY 2003, the General Assembly introduced austerity budget cuts to the amount of money generated by the QBE formula. Those “austerity cuts” remained in place until FY 2019 when the state appropriated $9.6 billion for K–12 education and fully funded the state’s QBE funding formula—a goal that had been unattainable for many years due to state revenue.

FIGURE 10 Per-Pupil Revenue & Expenditures, 2000–2017Georgia Department of Education School System Financial Reports

The QBE formula provides funding to local school districts for direct instructional costs (salaries and benefits for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors and specialists), direct operations costs (textbooks, etc.), indirect instructional costs (school administration and maintenance and operations), 20 additional days of instruction for students requiring remediation and media centers. The formula includes categorical grants for transportation and nursing, and funds to support the capital needs of local districts, including school facilities, technology and buses.

QBE was developed in the mid-1980s, and while education has changed dramatically since then, the formula remains largely the same. Money is distributed primarily based on buildings, programs and spending categories—often too rigid a methodology to give schools and districts the flexibility they need to keep up with an ever-changing world, and ready their students for the 21st-century workforce.

The QBE formula restricts a large portion of state money by allocating funds for activities, such as the types and sizes of classes offered, which limits local district’s ability to innovate—especially when paired with the flexibility granted to them as a charter or strategic waiver systems. Districts that have entered into the aforementioned contracts with the state have flexibility only in how they spend their earned funds, not how they earn them in the first place. That flexibility would come from a student-based funding formula, as districts would earn their funds in proportion to characteristics of the students they serve. In turn, they could determine more effectively, and with fewer limitations, the best ways to educate and support those students.

Local funding

Georgia is like most other states in that property taxes are the primary source of revenue for local school systems. This past year $6.7 billion was raised through local tax revenue to fund education. All told, that represents 40 percent of education revenue spent on students.Georgia Department of Education. Local, State, and Federal Revenue Report, Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Data Collection System.

The QBE Act requires local school systems to fund a portion of the minimum required level of spending for its students. The amount required of local districts, called the “Local Five Mill Share,” is equivalent to the amount of money generated by five mills levied on each school system’s property tax digest.

Because property tax values vary greatly across the state, and in an effort to “equalize” the educational opportunity available to all Georgia students, the state provides equalization grants to eligible districts levying a minimum number of mills. All local school systems generate local revenue to support their students by levying a property tax rate higher than the five mill minimum, and most levy between 15 and 20 mills.

Local school systems also have the authority to levy a temporary one-percent sales tax for the purpose of funding capital improvements. These Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (E-SPLOST) must be approved by local voters.Financing Georgia’s Schools: A 2015 Briefing, Georgia State University FY 2014, school systems collected $1.6 billion collectively in E-SPLOST funds.IbidAll but one county has an E-SPLOST in place and 132 counties have had an E-SPLOST in place continuously since first passage.Georgia’s Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for Education: Review of Trends and Policy Implications

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