Opinion: How Georgia’s lawmakers could invest in schools this session

Lawmakers return to Georgia’s Capitol on Monday to begin the 2022 session of the General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Lawmakers return to Georgia’s Capitol on Monday to begin the 2022 session of the General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Despite an unrelenting pandemic, a culture war at the expense of schools and a continuing drumbeat for vouchers, education advocates and leaders in Georgia are generally upbeat at this week’s start of the 2022 General Assembly.

Yes, they expect ersatz drama around critical race theory and the banning of “obscene” books. But most speakers at the recent annual Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education pre-legislative forum don’t foresee carnage.

“The average lawmaker is not interested in picking a fight with their local public schools, especially rural lawmakers who see public schools as the essential bedrock of their communities,” said Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

Owens predicted a few opportunistic lawmakers will use masks and school closures during COVID-19 to push private school voucher legislation. But he doesn’t see an appetite for that battle during a session that may have to contend with gun right expansions and abortion.

Advocates from preschool to higher education talked about their 2022 wish lists. Most entail greater investments by legislators. State School Superintendent Richard Woods urged the governor to complete his election pledge of a $5,000 raise for teachers, who thus far have received $3,000.

Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, said the state ought to raise the salary of assistant pre-K teachers. Assistants now earn $16,190 annually, regardless of their experience or additional education. Her organization is asking the General Assembly to spend $6 million to raise salaries to $18,190. (Pre-K funding comes from the Georgia Lottery.)

Binderman said the investment benefits the state, which may face a worsening teacher shortage in the next few years. “These teachers play an essential role, and this could also encourage them along their own educational pipeline to get the credentials to be lead teachers in their classrooms someday,” she said.

The state’s school district superintendent of the year also addressed funding. Baldwin County School District Superintendent Noris Price implored lawmakers to prioritize statewide broadband connectivity, end waiting lists for pre-K seats and allot the full school funding formula, which is regularly shortchanged, including by $383 million in the present and previous fiscal cycles.

Owens noted Georgia ranks 38th in per pupil funding in the Education Law Center’s 2021 rankings and has only “twice met the minimal requirement to fund schools in a formula that was written before I was born.” Approved in 1985, Georgia’s Quality Basic Education Act has failed to keep pace with spending. For example, while the state funded 40% of school bus costs in 2002, its contribution now covers 14%, he said. Not only have labor and gas expenses jumped over that time, but Georgia added 250,000 students since 2000.

Georgia districts received millions from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, a fifth of which must be spent on remediation of lost learning. Price warned the federal aid expires in two-and-a-half years. She asked: “How do we address issues of equity when it comes to making sure we are able to provide high quality education when the federal funding given to us to address learning losses goes away?”

At the forum, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education unveiled its annual a list of the top 10 education issues to watch. There were the perennials — improving school culture, increasing funding and raising the stature of the teaching profession. Of course, the list now includes the urgent need to address learning gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overriding theme of the list is equity, which is mentioned 74 times in the 68-page report. In normal times, urging equity wouldn’t be a bold statement. But these are crazy times, as demonstrated by the parents who packed school board meetings to rail against the teaching of critical race theory, a legal framework that highlights how race influences all aspects of society and how past inequities shape policies.

The hysteria — encouraged and enlarged by political opportunists seeking a wedge issue — led school districts that denied teaching CRT to nevertheless pass resolutions banning it from their classrooms. Not satisfied to rid schools of CRT, critics are now targeting diversity, equity and inclusion — initiatives that are, indeed, embraced in schools that believe all children should feel seen, valued and welcomed.

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