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Special Council on Criminal Justice Turns its Attention to the Kids

Mike Klein

One challenge in almost every policy discussion is how to make the numbers mean something.  So, let’s hope these numbers mean something.  The annual cost to fully incarcerate someone in Georgia’s juvenile detention system is $98,000 per bed, more than five times greater than adult prison system per person costs.  On the other hand, the state share is about $4,300 per pupil in the K-12 public school system.  One is an investment in the future. The other is simply shocking.

“Where is that money going?  Where is that $98,000?”  That question – asked rhetorically – was among several posed this week when the newly reconstituted Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform held its first meeting to consider a vast rewrite of the state juvenile code.  The Council retained all 13 members whose work helped to craft ideas for this year’s adult criminal justice system reforms, and it added eight new members, several with juvenile code expertise.

The Council is also expected to consider some unfinished business from the 2012 adult system reforms; in particular, more work on earned compliance credits, mandatory minimum safety valve sentencing ideas, and possible decriminalization of some traffic offenses.  But make no mistake about it; the main course on this year’s menu will be juvenile justice reform.

“States across the country including Georgia are facing very high per child costs in the juvenile system,” Pew Center on the States public safety analyst Jason Newman told the Council.  Part of the reason for higher per person expense is the juvenile system has costs that are not found in the adult system.  For example, mandatory education and especially special education which is costly.

Newman also told the Council, “Most states are not getting very good outcomes.”  That includes Georgia; 45 percent of juveniles who serve time in secure facilities commit another crime within three years.  They return to the juvenile system, or after age 18 show up in the adult system.

This year the General Assembly nearly enacted a package of significant juvenile reforms.  A bill that unanimously passed the House (HB 641) was sidelined because of questions about state expense and how local communities would afford services they would be asked to provide.  The bill has existed in various forms for about five years, with lots of stakeholder contributions.

The Special Council faces a December 31 deadline to submit its recommendations to Governor Nathan Deal.  A new bill is expected in the 2013 Legislature.  The Council will again receive technical assistance from the Pew Center and this new venture is joined by the Annie E. Casey Foundation which has decades of juvenile code expertise.

There is a great deal more to this conversation than questions about incarceration or expansion of community-based alternatives, similar to the path being implemented in the adult system.  For example, the juvenile code as envisioned in HB 641 would address juveniles who are unruly, but their actions would not be crimes as adults.  Some Council members indicated they want to learn more about how to decide whether 17-year-old offenders should be treated as juveniles or adults.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice will spend $300 million this fiscal year.  That will pay for seven Youth Development Campus facilities where juveniles can be held as long as two years; this is the juvenile equivalent of the state adult prison system.  DJJ operates 20 Regional Youth Detention Centers where juveniles are held while awaiting adjudication for an offense.   The department is also responsible for some 14,000 youths in community-based settings.

When you look at all the services provided – and all the locations where service is provided – the state DJJ interacts with about 41,000 juvenile offenders per year and it maintains a daily headcount of almost 16,000 offenders in its secure detention or community-based programs.

As noted above, 45 percent of all committed youth will be charged with a new crime within three years and the number is 60 percent for those sentenced to confinement in a Youth Development Campus secure facility.  “That rate has increased slightly over the last eight to nine years,” Pew’s Newman told the Special Council.  “So despite significant costs the state is actually seeing recidivism rates that are on the rise.”

“With all due respect, those numbers are lower than I thought,” said Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry, who is newly appointed to the Council.  “It depends on what you are asking,” Newman said.  “If you’re talking about re-arrested those numbers are higher. These are just the ones that are re-adjudicated,” meaning, they are back inside DJJ facilities or programs.

Changes Underway in the Adult Corrections System

This week’s Special Council meeting was notable for something else – a rare and illustrative discussion of changes already underway in the adult criminal justice system.  Tracking system reforms is a complex challenge because implementation has no single executive team and it has no website that would help the public learn about what’s being done, when and where.

The Department of Corrections will open new residential substance abuse treatment centers this month in Turner, Appling and Pike counties.  The Appling and Pike facilities are so-called dual diagnosis centers that also specialize in mental health services.

“We know mental health is a growing population, a growing segment of our probation and prison population,” said Jay Sanders, special assistant in the Corrections probation operations division.  “Our goal is to keep offenders – those that we can, not everyone – out of prison and in the community.”  Each center can provide mental health and substance abuse service to about 200 offenders.

A new probation day reporting center opened last week in Savannah and another will open within six months but the location has not been announced.  “These hold 100-to-125 individuals,” Sanders said.  “They report in every day, see their officer.  They’re drug tested and go to counseling.”

Community impact program sites are now open in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, McDonough and Rome.  These local offices connect mental health, education and labor resources with released offenders who are re-entering the community.  Two or three more are anticipated.  “We want to give you the opportunity to succeed so we don’t see you again on probation, in prison or on parole,” Sanders told the Special Council.

The Special Council did not announce a timetable for next meetings.  It will divide into work groups.  State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Governor’s Office deputy executive counsel David Werner are co-chairs.  “Nothing is off the table,” Boggs told the panel.  “We want to make sure that we are inclusive.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

July 18, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medicaid Dominated when Governor’s Policy Advisors Took Questions

Mike Klein

Medicaid is a beast.  About one-in-five Georgians receives Medicaid health care.  That is 1.7 million people.  Fifty-nine percent of statewide births are Medicaid babies.  Another couple hundred thousand children are enrolled in PeachCare, the state children’s health insurance program.   Medicaid could grow by hundreds of thousands more if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the federal health care reform law in its decision expected next month.

Not at all surprisingly, Medicaid redesign questions were abundant when three of Governor Nathan Deal’s advisors met with Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network members at the Freight Depot in Atlanta.  The advisors made no presentations and took questions for 90 minutes.

Health policy advisor Katie Rogers named telehealth reimbursement policies, portable electronic records, better outcomes for vulnerable children, physician shortages in some specialties, how to manage health care in counties that are medically underserved and treatment options for chronic childhood illnesses as part of the wide-ranging Medicaid redesign conversation.

Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on constitutionality of the 2010 federal health care reform law.  If upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provisions often known as ObamaCare could add 620,000 new Medicaid patients to the state program.  Rogers predicted, “People who haven’t had access to services are going to seek services probably very quickly.”

Georgia Medicaid cost $7.78 billion in fiscal year 2010, according to Kaiser State Health Facts.  Federal funds pay 66% and the state is responsible for the rest, about $2.7 billion.  Georgia Medicaid program redesign is being managed by the Department of Community Health with private partner assistance from Navigant. The project is described in a comprehensive design strategy report available on the DCH Medicaid website.

This project is so important to Georgia’s health care community that it is being closely monitored by many organizations outside government.  Cindy Zeldin is executive director at Georgians for a Healthy Future which advocates for improved statewide access to quality health care.

“The three buckets when we look at improving Medicaid would be one, just coverage, getting kids who are eligible but who are not enrolled today into the program so they at least have that front door access,” Zeldin told the Public Policy Foundation this week.

“Second, improving access to care, just making sure there is a mechanism to make sure that being in Medicaid means you can see a provider if you need to,” Zeldin said.  For instance, the state has no OB-GYN practitioners in 39 counties, which is an impediment to women’s health.

“Third would be improving outcomes and accountability, what you are asking managed care companies to report on and making sure you are measuring outcomes that ensure quality care.”

The Supreme Court opinion expected next month will also decide whether Georgia must create a health insurance exchange.  Last December a state report to Governor Deal said a private or quasi-governmental exchange would be preferable to one imposed by the federal government, but Georgia would prefer that it is not required to create any exchange.  Georgia opposes the federal health care reform law and it joined the suit that challenges the constitutionality.

“If the law is upheld as it stands now we will work very quickly to implement a state exchange,” Rogers said.  “If the law is not upheld the discussion will begin again on whether or not to move forward with a state exchange.  Part of the concern is without the individual mandate would people want to buy insurance through the exchange?”

Education and Public Safety Issues

Education and several public safety issues were also discussed during the open forum.

Education policy advisor Kristin Bernhard said several early childhood education programs lead the priority list heading into next year’s General Assembly.  Do not expect support for private school vouchers or increasing the age for compulsory school attendance from 16 to 18.

“The voucher conversation isn’t on the table for us,” Bernhard said.  “We’re more interested in increasing the quality of public education for all students everywhere.”  On compulsory school attendance she said, “The evidence is not necessarily compelling that raising the age of mandatory school attendance automatically results in an increased graduation rate.”

Education headlines over the next year will include incorporating the state’s version of new national core curriculum coursework, dual enrollment for middle school students taking high school courses or high school students taking college courses, tenth grade college readiness testing, and preparation to expand career pathways education now scheduled for fall 2013.

Also, Georgia admits that it has too many high school graduates who require remedial courses when they enter college.  “We know that students are graduating from high school not ready for college,” Bernhard told 100 Georgia Child Advocacy Network members.  Part of this discussion is how these students can be assisted by resources inside the state technical college system.

This week the Illinois Senate President proposed his state enact internet gaming legislation to get in front of a potential federal law that would grandfather existing state programs but prevent other states from creating new ones.  Do not expect anything like that in Georgia.

It is well documented that the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, grant and pre-K programs can no longer afford to fully fund their commitments.  Governor Deal opposes a proposed casino-style project and Bernhard says, “What we’re looking at is what we can do to boost the existing revenue streams.”

Several folks applauded when public safety advisor Thomas Worthy said, “I have no doubt that we will probably see and definitely sign a juvenile code rewrite next year.”  HB 641 was a substantial effort to rewrite piecemeal juvenile laws that are decades old.  It passed the House but then was stopped before Senate consideration so more work could be done on cost.

“Everybody is in agreement on the policy side of things,” Worthy said.  “We are there.  The stakeholders are there.  Agencies are now there.  Now what we are tasked with doing is figuring out a way to not only pay for implementation but actually ascertain savings that will come under the bill.”  Worthy said consultation has begun with the Pew Center on the States; Pew assisted with criminal justice reform legislation that Governor Deal signed this month.

Worthy also acknowledged, “Not only do we have a horrible child trafficking problem within our state, (Interstate) 75 is used to move folks going to other states.”  This year HR 1151 in the General Assembly created a commission to study child trafficking and make recommendations.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

May 17, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

House Sends Tax Reform Bill to Senate on 155 – 9 Victory Lap

Mike Klein

The Georgia House overwhelmingly approved tax reform legislation Tuesday afternoon, sending the bill to the Senate on the wings of a powerful 155 – 9 bipartisan victory lap.  Speaker David Ralston closed debate with a rare appearance in the well, telling members to, “Vote Green!”

Ralston personally thanked A.D. Frazier, chairman of the 2010 Special Council on Tax Reform that traveled the state and took testimony from hundreds of Georgians before it submitted a far-reaching … and some would say, politically challenging … set of recommendations.

“Some of you who followed that Council know that even though he was one of my appointees, I really couldn’t do much with him!” Ralston told House members.  “He led what I believe is an effort that will continue to pay dividends in this state for many, many decades to come.”

House floor debate – scheduled to last three hours – was considerably shorter and entirely positive when it began in mid-afternoon.  Rep. Mickey Channell, chair of the special legislative committee on tax reform, began the debate by acknowledging “the completion of a fairly long journey” but he soon added, “HB 386 is not a comprehensive tax reform package.”

House Speaker David Ralston

Using phrases like “one more tool in that tool box” to attract new businesses, Channell and other speakers returned often to the impact on jobs.  He said eliminating sales taxes paid on energy used in manufacturing was a reason Caterpillar will locate a plant that employs 1,400 near Athens.   Channell said a sales tax exemption for projects of regional significance is an “important deal closer for our state” and “another matter that will help create jobs for the state.”

One by one other speakers including Minority Leader Stacey Abrams went to the well to support House Bill 386, which was immediately transmitted to the Senate.  The legislation combines new revenues and tax changes that Channell described as pro-business and pro-family.

On the taxes side, the annual ad valorem tax paid on vehicles would be gone, and sales tax paid on vehicle purchases would also be gone, both replaced by a one-time only title fee paid at the time of purchase, whether through a dealer or in so-called casual sales between individuals.

The marriage penalty that results in married couples paying more than single individuals would be gone under the legislation.  Tax-free retirement income would be capped at $65,000; it had been scheduled to increase annually but that will not happen.  Channell said even at the current cap, Georgia loses some $700 million per year in tax revenue.

A. D. Frazier, Chairman, Special Council on Tax Reform

Other tax changes include reinstating the sales tax holiday for school supplies for two years starting this fall,  elimination of a film production sales tax exemption because it did not work, new sales tax exemptions for agriculture, and a reduction in state sales tax charged on jet fuel sales.

The legislation also requires that all online retailers with Georgia customers must collect and remit sales tax.  The tax will not generate a great deal of revenue but supporters say it will create a more stable playing field for the state’s brick and mortar retailers.

Soon after the House voted, Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Clark said the legislation would “attract new investment, encourage job creation, provide support to existing businesses and approve our overall competitiveness.”

Click here for coverage of Tuesday morning’s special committee on tax reform hearing.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 20, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Criminal Justice Reform Bill Expected Within Days

Mike Klein

The next version of criminal justice reform legislation should look more like last year’s special council recommendations without extra window dressing that somehow worked its way into HR 1176.   A new bill could be ready later this week or early next week.  Then the rush starts anew because the General Assembly is trying to complete its business before the month ends.

Four months have passed since Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations and nearly two weeks since eight hours of hearings on the original HR 1176.  The basic premise behind this bill is that Georgia should adopt alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

One area to look at closely will be whether judges would have sole discretion or whether judges and prosecutors together would decide which drug users are eligible for drug court treatment programs.  District attorneys have been adamant that they want a voice in those decisions.

Also, watch to see whether an extensive section about child abuse laws survives the cut; it was not part of the Special Council’s work.  And a paragraph about what clergy is required to report or not report after a parishioner confesses to a crime could be on the chopping block.

It is almost certain Georgia will expand weight-based drug prosecutions.  The Special Council said members “discussed creating a simple possession for cocaine and methamphetamine below a specific amount such as 1 gram.”  About three dozen states have already adopted some version of this, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.

One example from the original HR 1176 proposes to create simple possession categories of illegal drugs that weigh less than one gram, at least one gram but less than four grams, at least four grams but less than 28 grams and 28 or more grams.

Sentencing ranges could change.  First offense convictions for simple possession of one gram of solid drugs or one milliliter of liquid drugs would carry a one-to-five year sentence, down from two-to-15 years but Georgia’s new sentences would still be stricter than in some other states.

South Carolina created probation and suspended sentence options for first and second drug possession offenses, except trafficking.  Kentucky modified first degree possession for personal use to a three-year maximum sentence rather than five. Kentucky reforms enacted by last year’s legislature make a specific distinction between drug users and drug traffickers.

Arkansas enacted weight-based prosecutions for personal use possession ranging from just a few grams to trafficking possession of drugs that weigh several hundred pounds.  Arkansas also equalized penalties to erase disparities in crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession.

Expansion of weight-based prosecutions absolutely would have some impact on seven Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs that process evidence for 25,000 felony narcotics cases per year.  GBI director Vernon Keenan told legislators the labs typically have a 5,000 case backlog which means evidence has been waiting to be analyzed for at least 45 days.

The Special Council report said GBI drug analysis costs might increase by $1-to-$1.3 million per year.  But when Keenan testified at a State Capitol hearing he cited closer to $5 million more for new staffing and equipment.  “That’s also provided we can hire all the scientists,” Keenan said.

Atlanta attorney Jack Martin had a hard time believing the anticipated cost projection.  “I would just ask you to find out, where does that come from?” said Martin, who spoke on behalf of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  Martin said any new costs “would be chump change (compared to) what we’re talking about here and the savings we would be getting.”

Responding to an inquiry, this week a GBI spokesperson said increased costs were reviewed again since director Keenan’s testimony.  The new estimate is that 17 new scientists would cost $1.1 million per year and the bureau would need a $1.2 million capital expenditure for equipment to handle testing outlined in the original HR 1176.

There also has been some concern that state crime lab backlogs might increase the time before cases reach trial.  Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, who is president of the Georgia District Attorneys Association, said he prefers changes to sentencing options over the expansion of weight-based drug prosecutions.

“Having said that, I want to make it very clear drugs are not always a victimless crime,” McDade testified.  “I want to be very careful in making certain that you understand there could be a perception created if we went to a sentencing model that was perceived as being less stringent or always inviting only a probationary type of sentence that it would lose its deterrent effect.

“Most prosecutions for homicide in my circuit are driven by drugs,” McDade added. “Most violent crimes that I prosecute are drug-involved.  Just because a person possesses a drug it’s rarely a victimless crime.”  Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head also testified he prefers graduated sentencing options rather than the adoption of new weight-based drug prosecution.

Rep. Rich Golick is co-chair of the House – Senate special committee that is drafting HR 1176 and its revisions. The Smyrna legislator has spoken about the need to simplify the legislation and during the recent State Capitol hearing he seemed open to enhanced sentencing options.

“Why not do it just through the sentencing range?” Golick asked after he listed to testimony for and against weight-based prosecutions.  “It’s not simple but if we can simplify it somewhat by getting away from weight and getting toward the same goal but through a less complicated system that focuses just on the sentencing range, why not?”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 14, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Possible Strategy for Georgia Health Insurance Reform

Mike Klein

A behind-the-scenes coalition that believes the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the federal health care reform law is working on a new health insurance strategy for Georgia.

Almost certainly, this summer’s biggest headline will be the Supreme Court decision to uphold or overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which President Barack Obama’s administration counts as one of its finest achievements.  Two federal appellate courts upheld the law and one rejected it.  Supreme Court arguments are scheduled for the final week of March.

Federal law trumps state law, so nothing in the evolving state strategy could be implemented in Georgia if the Supreme Court upholds the federal health care reform law.  The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has hosted meetings of interested parties working on state health insurance reform options, but the Foundation has not assisted with drafting legislation nor has it taken a position on possible legislation.

A staggering 1.8 million Georgians have no health insurance.  They are not in group plans.  They do not have individual plans.  One-in-five men, women and children living in Georgia have no health insurance.

Coalition principles include restructuring the private market to increase competition and improve portability, protection against loss of coverage, and improved affordability for people and small businesses.  A core strategy is the expansion of defined contribution plans administered by employers.

Employers who cannot afford to offer health insurance will be able to make a defined contribution to a tax-free Health Reimbursement Account or HRA. Employees may use these pre-tax dollars to pay insurance premiums.  Pre-tax dollars in health savings accounts, another type of tax free account, could be used for deductible co-pay charges and a wide variety of wellness programs.

Consumers who do not have access to employer health plans would be allowed to deduct 100 percent of health insurance premium expense from their state income tax.  Current law does not allow for that deduction.   In addition, the proposal would allow small businesses to take advantage of “list billing” that would allow employees to pay for their individual health policy premiums with pre-tax dollars.

All of these efforts address the tax inequity of the current system that critics contend needlessly places the cost of health insurance beyond the reach of many families.

Small firm employers often find it almost impossible to offer comprehensive major medical insurance benefits.  The strategy proposes several ideas.  Companies with 10 or fewer employees could receive state tax credits for each employee who is enrolled 12 consecutive months in a major medical program.  Credits would be available for three years.  The entire program would end after ten years.

The strategy includes a focus on keeping currently insured Georgians insured.  Small businesses and their employees would have the same access and protections available to large firms and their employees. People who lose jobs after age 55 would have better access to COBRA extended coverage.  They could purchase extended coverage until Medicare eligibility at age 65.

Another idea addresses health insurance access for employees who leave small firms.  Currently small firm employees are eligible for just three months while large firm employees can extend and pay for insurance coverage for 18 months.  The proposal would equalize both groups at 18 months.

Another effort would focus on providing access to primary care for the uninsured.  A new “Georgia Charity Care Network Tax Credit” would be similar to the existing private school tax credit.  The credit could be taken by an individual or corporation that makes a cash contribution to an approved charity health care network.  There would be maximum annual contribution levels and the program would be capped at $2 million maximum per year for three years.

Federal health care reform requires that Georgia must create an insurance marketplace or the federal government will impose one in 2014.  A state health insurance advisory committee report published in December said the state should opt for its own program, but it stopped short of saying the General Assembly should begin to plan for that program now.  Georgia is waiting on the Supreme Court ruling.

The coalition believes a private, free market health exchange would provide all the benefits of a government-run model, but without the drawbacks. Georgia, which leads the nation in health information technology, is home to several companies already providing similar services.

A regional health insurance idea would enable Georgia to partner with four or more states to create a large private marketplace.  Major medical and group insurance carriers whose policies are approved in any member state would be able to offer those policies in other member states.  Georgia’s insurance commissioner would be authorized to explore major medical partnerships with other states.  Any plan approved by a partner state would be available to consumers in the other partner states.

One feature of federal health care reform enables children to remain on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26.   The Georgia twist would revise that to “tax dependent” children.  The distinction is that insurance eligible young adults must be dependents, not just grown children who have begun their independent lives, except where they are riding on parents’ health insurance policies.

Several other strategies are being considered.  One would create a high risk pool for people with pre-existing conditions, which would help stabilize the individual and small group market.  Pre-existing conditions restrictions would be standardized to not more than 12 months in group and individual plans.  Expanded physician choice options would benefit health care consumers.

Overall, the emerging Georgia health insurance strategy is not an attempt at medical care reform – who gets medical treatment, how much they get and who decides their treatment.  All of the ideas currently being discussed pertain only to insurance factors.   By one estimate, it might be possible to reduce the number of uninsured, non-Medicaid eligible Georgians from 1.8 million to 600,000.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

February 13, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Was Lots to Like About Deal’s State of the State Address

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal looked to the stars for guidance Tuesday evening as he delivered his second State of the State address before the General Assembly in Atlanta.  During a 42-minute address the Governor from Gainesville described his goal to achieve another world class medical college in Georgia, announced millions of new dollars for public education, threw a lifeline to former state commission charter schools, and he put his stamp firmly onto corrections reform.  Before doing that, Deal turned to the stars.

“Georgians have charged us to set a course for our state and they have defined the stars that we must follow to expand opportunity; the star of education – we must provide great schools that will cultivate the minds of our young people – the star of transportation – we must provide safe roads and avenues of commerce – the star of security – we must give every Georgian the ability to live in a safe community – and the guiding star in our constellation, jobs – we must create a business climate that provides Georgians with their best shot at a good job!  These are the stars on which our eyes must be focused as we chart the course for our great state!”

Deal said revenue stabilization – Georgia has 19 consecutive months of improved state revenue – will enable his Fiscal 2013 budget to increase K-12 schools funds by $146 million, increase technical schools and colleges funds by $11.3 million, increase school nurses funds by $3.7 million, and increase teacher salaries by $55.8 million based on training and experience.

As expected, Governor Deal also announced an increase in the number of pre-K school year days next year to 170 days, a ten-day improvement over this year.  Deal said there would be no reductions to the QBE funding formula, equalization grants or other enrollment driven programs.

He announced a new reading program for young pupils.  “Students must learn to read in order to be able to read to learn and when we fail to invest in our youngest students, we are forced to spend money on remediation for the remainder of their academic careers,” the Governor said.  “To this end, my budget includes $1.6 million for a reading mentors program.”

Governor Nathan Deal (File Photo)

Deal answered a big question about fall 2012 funding for charter schools that were affected by last spring’s Supreme Court decision that overturned the state charter schools commission.  He will ask for $8.7 million in supplemental grants to help those schools stay open next year.

The Governor added, “This is not the long-term solution, and I look forward to working with you to ensure that charter schools can thrive in Georgia. We can do this and with your help we will.”  The General Assembly is expected to consider ideas that would enable the state to become an alternate authorizer of schools that do not seek or cannot obtain a local school system charter.

On higher education, Deal came out firmly in support of a proposed consolidation of several state colleges.  The Governor described consolidation as “doing more with less.”  About medical education, he said, “Georgians deserve a world-class, public medical university and it will be a priority of this administration to have a medical college among the top 50 nationally.”

Deal said Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta will seek to become the state’s second National Cancer Institute designated Cancer Center, alongside the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University.  “Georgia’s annual death rate from cancer exceeds the national average,” Deal said “but I believe we have all of the ingredients necessary to be a destination for cancer research and a resource for every family battling this disease.”  Georgia will invest $5 million toward that goal.

“In order to address the need for additional health professionals in Georgia, we have been investing in the expansion of undergraduate medical education for several years,” Deal said.  “We must now take the next step in this process by increasing the number of graduate residency slots.”  The Governor said his budget will fund 400 new residency positions.

Deal announced “Go Build Georgia” to assist workforce development.  Deal said 13 million people are unemployed nationally but employers cannot find qualified personnel for some 1.3 million positions.  “Right here in metro Atlanta, Siemens has been unable to fill approximately 200 skilled-trade positions in the fields of manufacturing automation, health care technology, transportation systems and technical services.  It is time we begin work to boost our pipeline.”

On transportation, Deal said new southbound lanes will be added to Georgia 400 to alleviate congestion.  The Governor said he supports ideas to alleviate Northwest corridor congestion along I-75 and I-575, but not the ideas in a recently abandoned plan.  “I was, am and will be opposed to contracting away Georgia’s sovereignty for a period of 60 to 70 years over a transportation corridor that is so vital to our future,” Deal said.

The need to reform the state corrections system was a dominant theme when Deal addressed the General Assembly last year, and he returned to that theme with several announcements: $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers, $32.5 million for new prison beds, and three pre-release centers would be converted to residential substance abuse treatment centers at an initial cost of $5.7 million.

“We must make this investment,” Deal said.  “If we fail to treat the addict’s drug addiction, we haven’t taken the first in breaking the cycle of crime – a cycle that destroys lives and wastes taxpayer resources.  This is something we can do and with your help we will.”

Deal proposed $10 million in next year’s budget for new drug, DUI, mental health and veterans’ courts.  Expanding accountability courts was a key recommendation made by this past year’s special council on criminal justice reform. With a focus on rehabilitating people and closing the revolving door back into prison, Deal asked that the religious community, non-profits and other charitable organizations help former prisoners transition back into the general population.

“Let me be clear so there is no misinterpretation.  This is not a get out of jail free card,” Deal said.  “These reforms do not in any way diminish the seriousness of the seven deadly sins.  If you commit one of these, you will spend time in our prisons.  In fact, this transformation of our corrections efforts will ensure that we have the space and resources to incarcerate high-risk and violent offenders going forward.”

The Governor concluded his address by returning to the economic agenda that he discussed during his speech to 2,500 at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce “Eggs and Issues” breakfast.

Deal’s agenda includes repeal of the sales tax on energy, new sales and use tax exemptions for construction materials used in “projects of regional significance,” and updating two jobs tax credit programs.  “We will modernize our job tax credits to better incentivize small business growth and to help every Georgia community compete with their regional peers,” Deal said.

As mentioned above, Georgia finances have steadily improved since mid-2009 but the state is far from leaving the forest.  Georgia now has a $328 million reserve fund, an increase of 183 percent, but well below more than $1 billion on hand several years ago.  With an eye to change how the state manages money, Deal said 10 percent of all programs will begin zero-based budgeting, a process that requires justification for every line item in a budget before it is funded.  This idea was considered but never enacted during Governor Sonny Perdue’s administration.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 10, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Less Time, More Treatment Possible for Low-Risk Drug Abuse

Mike Klein

Next month the Georgia legislature will begin to consider whether substance abusers who are not a public safety risk should receive a stay out of jail card.  How lawmakers decide the question could slow down runaway costs and impact state corrections policy for decades.

Last month the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform said options – notably, more drug courts and treatment plus more day reporting centers — could reduce state prison population growth.  Drug courts are part of an accountability sentencing movement that includes mental health courts and veterans’ courts.  Here is what the council said about substance abuse:

“In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who have never been to prison before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions last year.  Looking more closely at drug admissions, more than 3,200 offenders are admitted to prison each year on a drug possession conviction (as opposed to a sales or trafficking conviction), and two-thirds of these inmates are assessed as being a lower-risk to re-offend.”

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver

Harder-on-crime ideas took hold in the early 1990s. The number of Georgia inmates doubled over 20 years and grew 35 percent since 2000 to 56,000 today.  As incarceration soared so did budgets; Georgia spends above $1 billion per year on adult corrections, up from $490 million in 1990.  Including pardons and parole and probation and the annual cost is closer to $1.5 billion.

Georgia’s inmate population grows 6-to-8 percent annually.  Special council member and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said that is “simply not sustainable.”  Oliver added, “We spend $13 per day on drug court offenders and approximately $48 per day on individuals in prison.  We have better recidivism rates on drug court offenders.  That is compelling to me.”

In August, the National Conference of State Legislatures said inmates incarcerated for drug offenses are 20 percent of state prison populations nationwide and more than half of all inmates are abusers or drug dependents.  The NCSL report was compiled in a partnership with the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project.  Pew is also consulting with Georgia.

Special Council Chair Judge Todd Markle

Governor Nathan Deal named Atlanta Superior Court Judge Todd Markle, his former executive counsel, to chair the special council.  Recently the Policy Foundation asked Markle about prison time vs. drug courts and treatment for drug offenders who are not considered a safety risk.

“You have to consider whether what we’ve done for 20-to-30 years — locking people up for drug offenses — is the best way to treat those folks.  We know a lot more about addictions and behavior issues than we did years ago.  We know a lot of these addiction best practices can work.  People philosophically have to get over the idea that people who have drug addictions are criminals.  In a lot of cases, we’re going to need to address these as health issues.”

The special council reported Georgia has 33 drug courts that cover less than 50 percent of the state’s counties and serve fewer than 3,000 offenders.  The state operates 13 day reporting centers and just three probation substance treatment centers. That suggests a big opportunity exists to catch up with states that already expanded drug courts and other treatment options.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein

Texas increased alternative program funds in 2007.  Kentucky and South Carolina approved probation and treatment for low-risk substance abusers last year.  California’s successful San Francisco pilot program started in 2005 was expanded statewide in 2009.  The Kansas plan adopted in 2003 includes residential treatment settings and stiff sanctions for new violations.

“This is an opportunity to address the demand side of drug addiction and for those who have an addiction, to really get themselves sober and not continue to offend,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who served on the criminal justice special council.

Georgia judicial circuits can expand drug courts without legislation.  The special council model would re-direct dollars saved in the penitentiary system to provide for courts and treatment. Legislation would be needed to change criminality levels based on the weight of illegal drugs.

“You cannot build drug courts from the top down,” said Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs, who also is a council member.  “You have to build from the bottom up.  It is meaningless for me to go to the southwestern judicial circuit and advocate that their judges start a drug court if they have no meaningful way to deliver the services.”

Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs

The special council estimated that $264 million might be saved if the state can avoid new prison construction for at least four years.  This thought from special council chair Judge Markle:  “If we try to kick this down the road where would we come up with that money?  Even we were in better economic times, I’m not sure we could come up with the money.”

Whatever emerges from the General Assembly will likely be a first step.  Governor Deal said the special council will remain in place and he described its work as just a starting point.

“Will a majority of what the Council recommended pass this legislative session?  Probably not but I think the discussion will begin and I hope it will be an educational process for legislators,” said Chief Justice Hunstein.  “We want our communities to be safer.  We want to reduce recidivism.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

December 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Charter School Kids: Boxed Into a Smaller Box

Mike Klein

MACON – Georgia children who attend charter public schools are typically boxed into smaller facilities that have inadequate library, science, art, music, cafeteria and physical education resources compared to traditional public schools.  That is the conclusion of a six-month study released last week during the Georgia Charter Schools Association ninth annual conference.

“Charter schools are in a facilities crisis,” GCSA President and CEO Tony Roberts told the Public Policy Foundation.  “The only way to alleviate that is for them to receive per pupil funding for facilities so they can afford to lease or buy facilities.”  Georgia start-up charter public schools do not receive facilities funds. Traditional public schools receive facility funds by several means.

Georgia instituted competitive public schools facilities funding 11 years ago and by law charter schools are eligible for E-SPLOST – education special local option sales tax – dollars but GCSA’s report said, “…the dividends from these programs have, thus far, been very limited.”

The GCSA report – “Shortchanged Charters: How Funding Disparities Hurt Georgia’s Charter Schools” – was scheduled for release in May but a decision was made to hold the report when the state Supreme Court declared the charter schools commission was unconstitutional.

The report was compiled by GCSA in partnership with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Thirty-seven independent start-up charter schools participated in research conducted between October and December of last year.

“We sent people on site so it wasn’t just a fill in the blanks thing,” Roberts said.  “We measured the size of the rooms. We saw if they had gyms or physical education facilities.  We were able to see if they had a cafeteria or not, how the children were eating if there was no food facility.”

The main finding concludes, “Charter schools are the only public schools in the state of Georgia forced to spend operating revenue on facilities.”  GCSA said, “Only 17 percent of state grant funding requested by charter schools was awarded for fiscal years 2008 through 2010.”   Just one among 37 charter schools said it had received E-SPLOST funds to assist with facilities.

Disparity was especially evident in cafeteria and physical education resources.  GCSA said 46 percent of Georgia charter school students qualify for free and reduced priced meals served at school, but just 38.9 percent of schools have proper facilities that meet federal standards.  Fifty-eight percent of charters said the school lunchroom does double duty as a gymnasium.

State law requires that public school districts should make unused facilities available to charter schools.  GCSA said, “…only 25 percent of charter schools have been able to gain access to unused space.  Of the remaining schools, one-third report unused district facilities nearby.  While the majority of these charter schools have asked permission to access unused district facilities, not one request has been granted to date.”

The report stated, “Families who choose to attend the public school that best fits their children’s educational needs should not have to do so at the expense of opportunities for participating in athletics, art, music or other programs that provide students with a well-rounded education.”

GCSA will use the report to foster consensus to fund charter school facilities with dedicated dollars that are not part of annual operating budgets.  Georgia had 74,000 charter school students last year.  That is about four percent of the statewide K-12 public school enrollment.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal Improves State Special Charter Schools Funding

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal has approved a financial rescue package that will significantly improve state funding for eight former brick-and-mortar state commission charter schools.  The schools were notified Thursday in an email from the state Department of Education.

Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, was elated when he heard the news:  “Governor Deal said at the beginning of this crisis that he was going to take care of the children in these schools and he really made it happen by encouraging the state superintendent to have a streamlined approval process for state special charter schools and now he has seen to it that those schools get full funding.”

What this means on a practical level is eight brick-and-mortar schools that were uncertain about their 2011-2012 financials can open next month assured of funding levels that they would have received from the now defunct Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  The state Supreme Court ruled the commission was unconstitutional in a widely controversial May decision.

“The state will forward fund the bricks-and-mortar state-chartered special schools for an amount equal to the average local share they would have received if they were locally approved,” said Louis Erste, charter schools division director at the state Department of Education, adding that will bring revenue to “the same amount they would have received as a locally-approved charter school in their approved attendance zone.”

Those eight brick-and-mortar schools are Atlanta Heights Charter in Atlanta, Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology in Statesboro, Cherokee Charter Academy in Canton, Coweta Charter Academy in Senoia, Fulton Leadership Academy in south Fulton County, Heritage Preparatory Academy in Atlanta, Odyssey School in Newnan and Pataula Charter Academy in Edison.

Governor Nathan Deal

“We don’t know the exact dollar figure at this point,” said Erin Hames, Governor Deal’s deputy chief of staff for policy, “but (the Governor’s Office) had to make a quick decision because some of these schools were set to meet tomorrow to determine whether they could keep their doors open this fall.”

Roberts said it is his understanding the cost to the state is uncertain.  Mark Peevy, former executive director of the defunct charter schools commission, had estimated about $10 million.  But since Peevy made that estimate this spring two schools – Heron Bay Academy and Provost Academy – decided they will not open until the 2012 – 2013 school year.

Roberts also said he believes this is a one-year fix: “There is no commitment that this will continue beyond this first year.”   The decision to improve funding for brick-and-mortar state charter schools does not impact the online learning state charter special schools such as Georgia Cyber Academy and Georgia Connections Academy.

Two brick-and mortar schools – Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County and the Museum School of Avondale Estates in DeKalb County – accepted local school district charters.

Ivy Prep and Museum School funding already includes local share dollars for their students who reside in the counties that granted charters.  To illustrate how complicated this has become; Ivy does not have full funding guaranteed for students who reside outside Gwinnett County.  That is still unresolved.  Ivy draws students from several metro counties, including DeKalb.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

July 14, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Virtual School Opportunities Unlimited, But Changes Necessary

Mike Klein

What is a virtual school? How does it teach? Who uses it? What does it cost? Is it any good? Those were legitimate questions when Georgia Virtual School opened its online learning doors to students in fall 2005. Those same questions are valid today and there are a few new ones.

There are many answers to what is a virtual school and how does it teach. Online learning may include internet-based courses taught by a classroom teacher, or internet courses taken with or without access to an online instructor.  The distinct advantage is students have access to courses not taught in their own schools. In Georgia, six county school districts offer their own online courses, and the state also has a large charter cyber school.

Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) is a $5.4 million entity within the $7 billion state Department of Education. This small and fairly low profile division distributes online courses to public, private and home school high school students – no middle school courses are offered this year.

GAVS is nationally well-regarded.  The 2009 Southern Regional Education Board analysis of state virtual schools commended Georgia for becoming the first state to create online teaching certificate standards. GAVS also has become a national leader for its advanced placement course offerings.

A new performance report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts is a thorough Georgia Virtual School analysis loaded with recommendations to make it better. The 46-page study was released three days before Christmas which explains why there has been sparse public recognition of its findings.

The best way to think about GAVS is as a supplemental program service and not a school. It does not offer degrees; you never “graduate” from GAVS. More than two-thirds of its 30,000 students last year participated in online credit recovery to retake a course they initially failed. GAVS provides faculty for all courses except credit recovery which is entirely online.

Performance report analysts wrote positively about GAVS but they also concluded it “does not have a strategic plan that addresses the fundamental issues of who should be served, the future direction of the program, or measurable goals and objectives. In addition, the program lacks sufficient performance measures and benchmarks for assessing the quality of the program.”

Challenges GAVS faces during its sixth year are virtually every kind – how to fund the model, student eligibility, decisions about course offerings, how to establish a cost basis, the proper balance between full-time and adjunct faculty, how to measure student performance, and how to divide compensation between GAVS and local school districts when students enroll in GAVS.

Student Performance
Analysis of 31,070 course enrollments taken since GAVS opened in fall 2005 found a 75% completion rate and an 80% passing rate. “These indicators suggest that GAVS is providing quality online instruction to its students,” the performance report said.

Measuring online student performance against students in traditional classrooms is an inexact science because sample sizes are so different. For instance, 31,761 classroom students enrolled in fall 2009 high school biology; five took online high school biology.

The Department of Audits performance report found GAVS enrolled 5,547 students in 8,923 courses last year, up 16% from one year earlier. The vast majority (83%) were public school students while 9% attended private schools and 8% were home-school students.

Nearly half of total enrollments (46%) were in core subjects – math, science, social studies and language arts. Another 40% were electives and 14% were enrollments in advanced placement courses. GAVS offered 114 courses last year; half (exactly 57) were core subject courses.

The performance report said GAVS “has not established a systemic approach for selecting courses to add to the curriculum or established priority areas for the types of courses to offer.” It said course decisions are made by “informally consulting” with stakeholders. The report said a formal curriculum review process should be developed.

Funding Models
The funding discussion is complicated with many stakeholders. GAVS leaders would like to expand course offerings and increase the number of students.  During our conversation last fall GAVS director Christina Clayton discussed how she would like to grow the student base to 100,000 students.

Christina Clayton

“I really want to break into K-5; we don’t serve that population now,” Clayton said.  “Listening to teacher and parent focus groups, what I am hearing is we need more of a resource to support technology literacy for our K-5 students so they are ready for middle school, high school and beyond.”

GAVS funding comes from three sources: the legislature, public school districts and students. The largest share is state funds allocated by the General Assembly; state funds paid tuition for 78.6% of course enrollments last year. Public schools paid for 14.4% and students paid for 7% of enrollments. Students pay directly for all courses taken during summer.

Importantly, the performance report said GAVS “has not analyzed whether the per-segment allocation of state funds or the tuition approximates the actual cost to deliver an online course.” Without that information, the report said, GAVS cannot ensure that it is covering costs.

The General Assembly also limits state funds; last year it agreed to fund not more than 8,500 course enrollments. GAVS has not outgrown state funding – some 500 fully funded enrollments were not used last year – but a cap of any kind is a roadblock that serves to slow the potential for program growth. Georgia has some 1.65 million public school students.  Barely 2% participate in GAVS courses.

Students must receive approval from their local school districts before they are permitted to enroll in GAVS courses. Some local public school district facilitators told Department of Audits analysts that they have denied permission so the local district can hold onto state funding rather than transfer those dollars to the state virtual school.

The report noted, “GAVS’ current funding model was established in 2005 without any analysis of what the cost of delivering an online cost should be.” It said, “GAVS should determine the purpose of the tuition amount (to recover all costs or partial costs), and periodically update the tuition amount as necessary to reflect the actual cost to deliver courses.”

Additional Recommendations
GAVS should write a three-to-five year strategic plan and then update it annually.

GAVS should develop student eligibility policies to reduce inconsistencies when local districts decide which students should be granted or denied access to GAVS courses.

GAVS should establish a standard student-teacher ratio and better monitor instructor workloads.

GAVS should consider how to handle hiring in-house so that it could cancel a $135,000 contract with Kennesaw State University which currently handles GAVS hiring and background checks.

Department of Education footnotes in the performance report often said the agency agreed with findings and would work to incorporate recommendations into new planning.

(Read the complete report on the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts website. Click here and then click on the Performance Reports icon. Enter “Georgia Virtual School” into the search window and click again. You will need to download the 46-page report.) (Georgia Virtual School link here.)

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment