Opinion: GOP lawmakers ignore student concerns over education bills

Senate committee declined testimony from Savannah teens on divisive concepts bill

This legislative session has seen a rise in high school and college students showing up at the Capitol to comment on proposed new laws affecting their education, a trend that doesn’t appear welcomed by Republican leadership.

With their slate of bills limiting class discussions of race and racism as well as what books can be in school libraries, Republicans maintain their only interest is helping students.

Yet they appear unwilling to hear from students who attend committee meetings or engage with them on the legislation. This is the same General Assembly passing new laws forcing school boards to be more transparent and responsive to the public, saying that people showing up at local school board meetings and complaining about library books deserve a forum.

On Monday, eight high school students traveled from Savannah to address House Bill 1084 at the Senate Education and Youth Committee. HB 1084 bans the teaching of divisive concepts, drawing on a 2020 executive order by then-President Donald Trump that identified divisive concepts and banned them from federal worker training.

As required, the Savannah teens signed up for the public comment portion, prepared their testimony and arrived six hours early, but Chair Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, refused to hear them out. “We don’t have time. We have to move on,” he said, provoking criticism from Democratic committee members.

“When I went out in the hall and saw tears streaming down the faces of students that our colleagues are acting like are pawns in a game, I knew we had to let them tell their stories,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. She and other Democrats gathered the following day with the students in the Capitol so they could finally be heard.

“When we weren’t allowed to give testimony, it was really frustrating because we stayed up until 1 a.m. the night before and drove four hours from our hometown of Savannah,” said student Jalen Conner, 18. “I had to step out into the hallway because I didn’t want to cry in front of the representatives. It felt disrespectful with all the hard work we put into prepping and we didn’t even get to be heard.”

It’s too bad lawmakers won’t listen to students, but not surprising. Students are smart enough to realize these bills seek to sanitize history and placate a vocal minority in the state that prefers a romanticized and whitewashed view of Georgia’s past.

Toward the goal of highlighting student voices, Georgia members of Fair Fight University are sending a letter to the leaders and members of the General Assembly. Fair Fight University is a student organization that advocates for fair elections and increased voter engagement. The group was created by Stacey Abrams after she lost the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia. It has chapters on colleges across the state.

Here is their letter:

This year, Georgia legislators have spent the legislative session proclaiming that they care about Georgia’s students. But behind the smokescreen, the reality is clear: Instead of putting our needs as students and future leaders first, Georgia legislators have decided to put politics and fear mongering ahead of supporting public education.

At the same time they are trying to sabotage our elections after historic student turnout by pushing anti-voting bills like HB 1464, they are trying to silence our voices in our classrooms as well.

Elected leaders in Georgia have slashed state funding for K-12 public education by more than $10 billion over the past two decades, leaving districts drastically underfunded and under-supported. Meanwhile, rather than addressing this crisis, in a year with a record revenue surplus, legislators have instead spent their time pursuing bills that would censor both classrooms and educators.

As recent high school students, we recognize the need to receive an accurate and honest education, to prepare us for the future. These proposals are a direct attack on students’ freedom to learn, based on political pandering and manufactured panic. As current college students, having an honest education in our public schools is key to making sure students like us are ready for higher education and ready to lead.

During this year’s session, Georgia legislators have used cynical tactics to force forward bills that could further prohibit truthful classroom conversations, and intimidate schools that allow students and educators to critically engage with the history of this country. These bills — including HB 1084, HB 1178, SB 226, SB 377, SB 449, just to name a few — are attacks on the freedom of education that aim to give politicians control over our classrooms and block our access to an honest, quality public education.

These bills threaten to censor our teachers, classrooms, and libraries to prevent students like us from learning an honest history — all so legislators can score political points in an election year. If this is the answer to showing students they care, Georgia legislators have failed us.

The same legislators who pretend they have students’ interests at heart are promoting policies that censor our academic freedom, intimidate our teachers, and opened this year’s legislative session with bills that threatened to slash hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from schools.

If legislators cared about Georgia students, they wouldn’t push bills like HB 1084 and SB 377 that censor learning and prohibit discussion of all students’ reality and experiences. Moreover, legislators truly committed to school and student success wouldn’t include provisions in these bills to punish schools by revoking waivers that schools rely on for planning effective instruction. If legislators really want to improve student outcomes, they wouldn’t censor honest history while taking away students’ right to an honest and quality education

Despite the actions taken during Georgia’s 2022 legislative session, we know that our state can do better and that this country’s future and our opportunities going forward hang in the balance, not just on election day but in the classrooms across the state every day of the year. It is imperative this country teaches its children an accurate and honest history today to determine its future tomorrow.

That’s why it is up to us, as students, to hold our state legislators accountable, and demand that they work to give all students an honest, quality education. Georgia’s students deserve support and legislators dedicated to their futures. Stop wasting our time and risking our future opportunities. It is time for legislators to do right by Georgia students, and show us they care by voting against these dangerous bills.

Signed:

Fair Fight University, Georgia Institute of Technology Chapter

Isaiah Thompson & Nyla Duhon

Fair Fight University, Emory University Chapter

Rebecca Jackson & Hannah Marcus

Fair Fight University, Agnes Scott College Chapter

Destiny Tisdale

Fair Fight University, Spelman College Chapter

Rachel Patrick & Cheyenne Henry

Fair Fight University, University of Georgia Chapter

Grace Hall & Niclas Hammontree

Fair Fight University, Morehouse College Chapter

Bennie Williams, Jason Roberson, Alonzo Frederic, & Tremayne E. Johnson, II