Georgia lawmakers left the state Capitol early Thursday morning after passing legislation aimed at improving literacy and safety in schools, but the 2023 legislative session will likely be remembered more for what didn’t pass.
One of the most controversial measures on the calendar Wednesday night was a new voucher program, which would have created a third path to a state subsidy for private education. It failed in a narrow vote, leading to loud celebration on the House floor.
Here’s a look at what did and did not get across the finish line by Sine Die, the last day in the first year of this biennial legislative session.
Senate Bill 233 would have established a $6,500 annual subsidy for students who left a low-performing public school for a private school or for home schooling.
It had been on the agenda for a House floor vote since last week, drawing multiple friendly amendments in hopes of winning more support, by the time the Republican-led measure was rejected 89-85 Wednesday night. It was stopped with the help of more than a dozen GOP defectors who joined Democrats, all but one of whom opposed the measure. Their cheers could be heard across the Capitol building, in the Senate.
Later, House Speaker Jon Burns called it a “tough” vote. Burns, who as speaker isn’t allowed to vote, said he supported the measure, as did Gov. Brian Kemp, who gave it a last-minute push.
Burns noted that the bill will remain in play when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Two other private school subsidy bills also lacked enough momentum. House Bill 54 sought to raise the cap on a tax credit-funded private school tuition subsidy program to $200 million but never got a hearing. House Bill 101 got farther, having passed the House. It would have raised the current $120 million cap by $10 million, but stalled in the Senate.
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Reading was a focus of both the Senate and the House, which explains why bills from each chamber that seek to boost literacy rates among young students won final approval.
House Bill 538, adopted Wednesday afternoon, would require schools to revamp how they teach reading in kindergarten through third grade, and it would overhaul teacher certification and training. The Georgia Early Literacy Act calls for “high-quality” instructional materials aligned to the “science of reading,” which it defines as research that identifies “evidence-based” approaches. These terms are core to a movement that seeks a heavier dose of phonics and other techniques and strategies endorsed by a panel convened by the U.S. Congress more than a quarter century ago.
Companion legislation, Senate Bill 211, had already crossed the finished line Monday. One might think of it as the muscle behind this literacy push. It would establish a 30-member council of political appointees (the governor gets a dozen, the Senate and House each get nine) to help implement HB 538. It would also review existing literacy programs, hiring experts and meeting periodically through 2026, to determine which are “evidence-based.” The legislation includes a lengthy definition of what that means, using terms such as “phonological awareness,” “fluency,” “decoding” and “encoding” that trace back to that congressional reading panel.
House Bill 147 would double down on safety drills in schools, requiring that administrators participate and that the state be alerted that the drills were held. The Kemp-backed measure, which passed in early March, also would encourage qualified teachers to obtain anti-gang training and, in a nod to increasing gun violence, would require that the drills focus on “intruder alert” situations.
Democrats, arguing this could be traumatizing for children, tried and failed to eliminate a passage that would allow school systems to force them to participate even if their parents object.
Lawmakers also adopted House Bill 340 on Wednesday. The legislation would ensure teachers have free time to plan their lessons during the school day, time that also could be used to study safety plans. Unrelated last-minute amendments included one that would restrict school board member interactions with teachers.
One safety bill that didn’t make it before the session gaveled to an end: Senate Bill 32, named after Alyssa Alhadeff, a casualty of the 2018 mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. It sought to require mobile panic alert systems (panic buttons) in every school, like systems already deployed in many metro Atlanta schools.
Frustration with school accreditation agency Cognia led to the passage of Senate Bill 204 in mid-March. It would put a focus on academic and financial performance in reviews of school systems rather than on the kind of school board infighting that triggered a 2021 special review of the Cobb County School District. The bill passed with broad bipartisan support in the House and unanimously in the Senate — twice — before and after the House made some changes.
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