The 2022 Georgia Legislature: Hands off schools or hands on?

Schools may be caught in middle of fierce GOP battle around governor’s race

In the past, public education advocates have bemoaned the lack of attention to schools by the General Assembly. With a predicted political circus ahead over critical race theory and book bans, those advocates may wish education could remain safely on the sidelines rather than being dragged into the center ring.

The 2022 legislative session promises a lot of attention on schools, most of which will be unwanted by those who work in the schools. A bill is likely coming that will ban some books dealing with race and gender. As my political colleagues have reported, state Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House, announced she’s working to “ensure obscene materials have no place in public schools.”

In targeting books that resonate with parents upset over what they feel are liberal influences in schools, Georgia Republicans are following the successful strategy of conservative politicians in other states, most notably Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. In promoting his support of parental rights, Youngkin ran an ad that featured a Republican activist who fought eight years ago to have Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel “Beloved” banned from her son’s high school, saying the book’s imagery gave her son nightmares. (Her son was a high school senior and reading the book, which describes the horrors of slavery, in an advanced class.)

Politically orchestrated attacks on critical race theory this year turned some metro Atlanta school board meetings into melees. Lawmakers running for reelection want to capitalize on that public outrage. Eager to polish his conservative credentials, Gov. Brian Kemp already joined the critical race theory blockade in May when he urged the state Board of Education to take “immediate steps to ensure that critical race theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards and curriculum.”

Sure, there’s zero evidence that CRT, a complex legal theory, is taught in any K-12 school in Georgia, but that won’t prevent legislative hearings. Kemp may be pushed to go even further with his anti-CRT stance now that he’s facing opposition from David Perdue, an ally of former president Donald Trump. Perdue has indicated he’s going to tether his political tent in the middle of the culture wars.

And we can’t forget the COVID-19 fallout. School choice proponents in the General Assembly will cite the shift to remote learning as proof of an urgent need for expanded parent choice. (You will likely hear no reference to the March 26, 2020, executive order by Kemp to close schools. In this political retelling, it will all be the fault of educators.)

So, here are my questions:

In an ideal world where lawmakers weren’t willing to exploit schools for their own political ambitions, what should the education priorities be this year?

Does Georgia need any new education legislation or do schools need a breather from government mandates?

Is there anything the Legislature ought to do to incentivize the teaching profession? There are many predictions that Georgia will see increased teacher shortages as a result of COVID-19 burnout. Can new laws and policies help recruit and retain teachers?

Send me your views at maureen.downey@ajc.com.