As of 2008, approximately 1.6 million students were enrolled in prekindergarten through twelfth grade in 181 public school systems and more than 2,000 schools in Georgia. Education is compulsory for all children ages six to sixteen. There are approximately 114,000 full-time and nearly 5,000 part-time preK-12 teachers in Georgia; they are assisted by nearly 11,000 full-time and more than 2,000 part-time support personnel (paraprofessionals, nurses, speech pathologists, etc.) and more than 8,000 full-time and more than 1,500 part-time administrators.


Although the state constitution has compelled public support of education since 1777 and the state’s first government-supported high school opened in Augusta in 1783, Georgia did little to provide for public education in the state. A “poor school fund” was established in 1822, but its benefits proved limited. Several towns and cities provided free schooling to local children. Only in 1858, under Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown, was there an effort to establish a comprehensive system for the state’s white children.

Public Education
Public Education

Courtesy of John La Boone

The disruption of the Civil War (1861-65) postponed any serious efforts at implementation until Reconstruction. The legislature in 1866 mandated a free public school system, but with few resources to support such a system in the bleak postwar environment, little happened right away. The new state constitution of 1868 called for “a thorough system of general education, to be forever free to all children of the State,” to be funded through poll and liquor taxes. In 1870 the Republican-controlled system was put into place, but only with the return of Democratic “home rule” in 1872 did it finally take shape under the leadership of Gustavus J. Orr, state school commissioner. All schools were segregated by race, and many could afford to operate for only three or four months at a time.

It was not until 1949, with legislation known as the Minimum Foundation Program, that a uniform nine-month school term was required. Schools remained segregated, as confirmed by the state constitution of 1945, which led to significant inequities in textbooks, teacher salaries, and facilities. In 1951 a 3 percent sales tax was passed by the Georgia General Assembly to help support schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregation was unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and ruled a year later that southern schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” The Georgia legislature, like those of most southern states, strongly opposed this federal mandate, declaring it null and void in the state. It passed a series of laws prohibiting or inhibiting enactment of the Court’s ruling, including the termination of state and local funding for any school that did desegregate, and authorizing the governor to close such schools.

By late 1958 these efforts at “massive resistance” slowly began to crumble, as Atlantans launched a “Help Our Public Education” (HOPE) movement to keep public schools open regardless of whether they were integrated. In 1960 the Sibley Commission, established to evaluate the situation statewide, urged that the state repeal its official opposition to the Brown decision and allow individual counties and communities to make their own decisions about when and how they chose to respond. By late 1961 four white high schools in Atlanta had allowed Black students to enroll, as did schools in Savannah, Athens, and Brunswick in 1963.

Yet ten years after the Brown decision, less than 2 percent of African American students in Georgia attended classes with whites. Only in the early 1970s were segregated public schools fully dismantled across the state, though many communities responded by establishing all-white private “segregation academies” that, in effect, kept Blacks and whites in separate classrooms.

Student and Teacher Demographics

All data reported in this section reflect 2007-8 figures provided by the Georgia Department of Education or the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, except where other sources are noted. The race/ethnicity of children enrolled in Georgia schools at that time was 46 percent white, 38 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 3 percent multiracial. In contrast, the race/ethnicity of Georgia’s preK-12 teachers (full- and part-time) was 75 percent white, 23 percent African American, and only 1 percent Hispanic.

Statewide, 9 percent of students are enrolled in gifted education programs, and 11 percent are enrolled in special education programs. Less than 4 percent of students are served by ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs, but this number will grow in the coming years as the Hispanic population increases.

Sixty percent of the schools in the state receive federal Title I funds to provide supplemental instruction to students whose achievement is significantly behind that of their peers. Title I funds are allocated according to the percentage of students (not the number of students) in the school who are eligible for free or reduced-price (F/R) lunches. If more than 40 percent of the students in a school are eligible for F/R lunches, Title I funds can be used to enhance instruction for all students in the school through a schoolwide program. Other schools that are ineligible for a schoolwide program or choose not to operate a schoolwide program provide targeted assistance only to those students who are at risk of not meeting state standards. In Georgia approximately 1,300 schools receive Title I funds, with about 1,100 schools using those funds for schoolwide Title I programs, and about 200 using them for Targeted Assistance Title I programs. Fifty-one percent of Georgia students are eligible for F/R lunches.

Two statistics of great concern in Georgia are the dropout rate and the high school completion rate. The two terms are not interchangeable. The dropout rate is a measure of the number of students who leave school from one fall to the next for reasons such as employment, incarceration, academic failure, military enlistment, or childbirth. A student who leaves school but later completes a General Educational Development (GED) diploma is still considered a dropout. For grades 7-12 the dropout rate is 2.6 percent, and for grades 9-12 the rate is 3.6 percent. The high school completion rate reflects the percentage of ninth graders who graduate four years later. The completion rate for 2008 was 75.4 percent. In 2009 the Georgia General Assembly passed the “Move On When Ready Act,” which allows high school juniors and seniors to earn high school credit for courses taken at postsecondary institutions and allows such students to graduate early with no financial penalty to the school district if the students have met graduation requirements.

Prior to the fall of 2008, students had the opportunity to earn a diploma with a college preparatory endorsement, a diploma with a vocational endorsement, a diploma with both endorsements, a special education diploma, or a certificate of attendance. In 2008, 49 percent of students completing high school earned college prep diplomas; 23 percent, vocational; 21 percent, college prep and vocational; 3.5 percent, special education; and 4.5 percent, certificates of attendance. In 2007 the state of Georgia eliminated the vocational diploma for students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2008 and beyond. Thus, students can earn a regular high school diploma by meeting all graduation credit requirements and attendance requirements and passing all of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests. Students with special needs who complete all of the requirements in their Individualized Education Program but do not meet other graduation criteria receive a special education diploma. Students who do not complete all requirements for graduation or do not pass the Georgia High School Graduation Tests are awarded a High School Certificate.

The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is a college entrance exam often used to compare the performance of high school students among states and among school districts within a state. The scores that are reported at the national level are the most recent scores for each senior; Georgia also reports the highest score for each senior, but these scores cannot be compared nationally and are therefore not reported here. In 2008 Georgia students averaged 1453 (combined verbal, math, and writing scores, each on an 800-point scale) on the SAT, compared with a national average score of 1495. Georgia students scored an average of 486 points on the verbal section, compared with the national average of 487. On the math portion of the test, Georgia students scored an average of 490 points, compared with the national average of 510. Georgia students scored an average of 477 points on the writing portion of the test, compared with the national average of 488 points. When SAT scores are used to compare states, Georgia usually finishes near the bottom. The College Board, which administers the SAT, cautions against the use of SAT scores for this purpose, because the population of students taking the SAT in each state varies considerably. In some states, most students take a different test, the American College Testing (ACT). In those states, students who take the SAT generally have strong academic backgrounds and plan to apply to some of the nation’s most selective colleges and scholarship programs. For example, in 2008 there were more than 62,000 Georgia seniors who took the SAT, with an average score of 1466. (Note: This number is taken from the College Board, which administers the SAT. The number above was taken from state of Georgia data. The two numbers are slightly different, probably due to differences in how and when students were classified by each agency.) In contrast, only 1,300 Iowa students took the SAT, and their average score was 1799. By way of comparison, Georgia had more than 83,500 high school graduates in 2008, while Iowa had approximately 34,000 high school graduates.

The College Board also notes that certain subgroups of students (based on race, gender, parental education, household income, school type) do not perform as well as others on the SAT. Thus, the more diversity a state has in its test-takers, the more likely scores are to be lower. The state of Georgia has made a concerted effort to encourage more students to pursue postsecondary education. Thus more students, and more diverse students, are taking the SAT in Georgia.

Students who maintain a B average throughout high school are eligible for the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship to finance their postsecondary education in Georgia. More than 38 percent of the students graduating in 2008 were eligible for the HOPE Scholarship, which is funded with lottery proceeds.

School Options

Of the 181 public school systems in Georgia, 159 are county systems and 21 are city systems; the Department of Juvenile Justice also runs a school system. There are nearly 2,000 schools within these 181 systems. In addition, 24 psychoeducational facilities serve students with severe disabilities. The state also operates a virtual school, which mostly serves high school students. The accrediting body for both public and private schools in Georgia is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Families have a variety of educational options in Georgia.

Charter schools: A charter school or district is a public school that operates according to the terms of a charter that has been approved by the state Board of Education. A charter school may be exempted from certain rules and policies. In exchange for this flexibility, the charter school is required to meet the performance-based objectives specified in its charter. As of September 2009 there were 113 charter schools or systems in the state.

Atlanta Area School for the Deaf
Atlanta Area School for the Deaf

Courtesy of Atlanta Area School for the Deaf

State schools: The state operates three schools for students with special needs, all of which serve students between the ages of three and twenty-one. The Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in Clarkston serves students in metropolitan Atlanta who have hearing impairments. The Georgia School for the Deaf, located in Cave Spring, provides both day and residential education for deaf students from throughout the state. Since 1852 the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon has provided residential education for children who are blind. The school also offers a program for students with multiple disabilities. In addition, the GA PINES program (Parent Infant Network for Educational Services) provides services for families of children from birth to five years of age who have hearing and/or visual impairments.

Private schools: In 2007-8 there were more than 650 private schools (parochial and independent) in Georgia, enrolling more than 120,000 students. Private schools are subject to state laws regarding length of school year and day, subjects that must be taught, and testing and reporting standards. Georgia does not have a voucher system, but the topic is frequently considered by the legislature.

Homeschooling: State law provides an option for parents who have a high school diploma or GED diploma to homeschool their children. In 2005-6 more than 36,600 Georgia students were enrolled in homeschool programs. State law specifies the curriculum areas to be taught and number of hours of instruction. Parents must provide attendance reports, and children must take nationally standardized tests every third year, beginning at the end of third grade.

Prekindergarten and Head Start: Since 1993 the state has used funds generated by the lottery to fund prekindergarten programs that are housed in both public schools and private child development centers. Through this program Georgia serves a higher proportion of four-year-old children than any other state in the nation. The program is voluntary on the part of both parents and providers. Thus, there are sometimes not enough spaces for all families who wish to participate. More than 76,000 children (57 percent of the eligible children) are currently being served in prekindergarten programs. The prekindergarten program is administered by Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

Bright from the Start also administers the Head Start program, a national program that provides comprehensive developmental services for more than 20,000 low-income preschool children and their families. The program addresses developmental goals for children, employment and self-sufficiency goals for adults, and support for parents in their work and in their roles as parents. Children served by Head Start may receive medical and dental examinations and treatment, immunizations, and social services.

Georgia Department of Education

Public education in Georgia is governed by the Georgia Department of Education, which is led by an elected superintendent and a board of education appointed by the governor. The state Board of Education is made up of thirteen individuals, each representing a congressional district. Both houses of the Georgia General Assembly maintain education committees.

The Department of Education has responsibility for a broad array of school-related matters, including curriculum, textbook adoption, assessment, safety, nutrition, and transportation. It publishes a report card for the state as well as reports for each school system and school annually. These report cards contain student and teacher demographic information and assessment results.

Each local school district is led by an appointed superintendent and an elected board of education. Until 1996 there was no uniform standard throughout the state; in many districts superintendents were elected, and boards of education were appointed.


The Quality Basic Education Act of 1985 established the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC), which was the state’s official curriculum for public schools, grades K-12, for nearly two decades. A revision of the QCCs in 2003 was prompted by the results of an external audit conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International. This audit revealed crucial gaps in the curriculum and a general lack of rigor. As a result of these findings, state teachers and other education experts developed a new curriculum, known as the Georgia Performance Standards. Implementation began in 2005 with English, math, science, and social studies.

Textbooks are adopted on a rotating basis, one or two subjects per year (pending funding). The state Board of Education develops a list of recommended textbooks from which local districts may make purchases with state funds.


In the 2014-15 school year, the Georgia Milestones Assessment System (GMAS) replaced the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). The CRCT measured attainment of objectives specified in the Georgia Performance Standards for students grades 1-8. GMAS tests measure comprehensive attainment for students grades 3-12. Students in grades 3-8 must take an End of Course Assessment (EOC) in language arts and math, while students in grades 5-8 must also take EOCs in science and social studies.

Under GMAS, which in addition to replacing the CRCT also replaced the End of Course Test (EOCT), students in grades 9-12 now must take EOCs for each of ten designated courses in five subjects: English language arts, math, science, and social studies. Irrespective of grade level, under GMAS EOCs serve as each course’s final exam and count for 20% of each student’s grade. Students wishing to obtain a high school diploma must also pass all five sections of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests. The Georgia Alternative Assessment is provided for students with special needs whose Individualized Education Programs specify that they are unable to participate in the regular assessment even with maximum accommodations.

Students in grades three, five, eight, and eleven are required to take a writing assessment each year. All kindergarteners are assessed for first-grade readiness with the Georgia Kindergarten Assessment Program. This is a performance-based test (not a pencil-and-paper test) administered to each child individually by the child’s teacher three times per year.

Local school districts are also required to administer a nationally norm-referenced test (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) annually in grades three, five, and eight.

School Finance

The average annual per-pupil expenditure for 2007-8 was $9,120. More than 40 percent of this money comes from local property taxes, and 52 percent comes from state funds. Approximately 6 percent of funding comes from the federal government. State law provides for local systems to hold a referendum to authorize a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), with funds restricted for use in capital improvement projects, capital outlay projects, or debt retirement for capital outlay projects.

The base salary provided by the state for a fully certified teacher with no experience was $33,424 in fiscal year 2010. Most school systems provide a local supplement. The average salary of preK-12 teachers in Georgia in 2007-8 was approximately $51,500.

State and Federal Legislation

In 2000 the legislature enacted House Bill 1187, known as the A+ Education Reform Act, which mandated comprehensive educational reform for the state. Major components of this legislation included establishing maximum class sizes by grade level, lowering the age of compulsory school attendance from seven to six, eliminating fair dismissal (tenure) for teachers, establishing the Office of Education Accountability, and mandating CRCTs for students in grades one to eight. The legislation also requires each school to create a school council composed of the principal, two parents, two teachers, and two businesspeople to advise the principal and the local board on any matter, including curriculum, budget, principal selection, and the performance of school personnel.

Some elements of HB 1187 were repealed or altered in 2003. Most significant, the teacher fair-dismissal clause was restored, and some modifications were made to the class-size mandates to avoid undue economic hardships on districts (because of the need to hire more teachers and build more schools).

The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted by Congress in 2001 and reauthorized in 2008, sets nationwide standards for improving public education by the end of the 2013-14 school year. All students, regardless of race, income, or language proficiency, are to be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Further, all students are to graduate from high school, and all students with limited English proficiency are to become proficient. To achieve these goals, the law mandates achievement testing and requires states to set standards to judge whether school districts, schools, and subgroups of students within schools are making “adequate yearly progress.” Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress must provide parents with the option to transfer their children to other schools. The law also mandates that all teachers and paraprofessionals be highly qualified and teach only in their areas of certification. Finally, the law also requires that schools be safe places and that parents be given the option to transfer their children out of schools deemed to be persistently dangerous.

In 2009 the General Assembly enacted HB 251, which provides additional choice options to parents. This law states that local school systems must offer parents the option to enroll their child in a school other than the one to which they were assigned, if space is available. School systems are not required to provide transportation for families opting to exercise the choice option. If there are more students requesting a school by choice than there are slots available, students are assigned by lottery.

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Courtesy of John La Boone

Atlanta Area School for the Deaf

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Courtesy of Atlanta Area School for the Deaf

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