Lawmakers consider school courses about the Bible, computers, civics

The Georgia legislature is considering three bills that would change the curriculum for the state’s school students. FILE PHOTO
The Georgia legislature is considering three bills that would change the curriculum for the state’s school students. FILE PHOTO

How many amendments does the U.S. Constitution contain? Is the energy secretary a cabinet-level position? Does the federal government have the power to provide schooling and education?

Those are some of the questions Georgia students would have to answer to graduate high school if one of several curriculum-related bills is approved by state lawmakers.

Legislation mandating a minimum score on the U.S. citizenship test passed the Senate this year, as did other bills that could alter what's taught in public schools, including one requiring computer programming and another allowing more Bible-related teaching.

Time is running out for these bills, which must get through the House of Representatives by April 2 when this year’s legislative session ends.

>> READ | Get Schooled: New survey finds Georgians don't know much about history

The citizenship test legislation, Senate Bill 219, is a Democrat-led effort in a General Assembly controlled by Republicans, yet it passed the Senate unanimously. To earn their diploma, students would have to correctly answer 60 percent of the questions on the same test given to would-be citizens, though they could retake it as many times as necessary. (Answers to the questions above: 27; yes; and no, states have that power.)

R.M. Moore Elementary School teacher Christina Ortiz leads her first-graders in the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday, the first day of class for the 2016-17 school year.
R.M. Moore Elementary School teacher Christina Ortiz leads her first-graders in the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday, the first day of class for the 2016-17 school year.

Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said she sponsored the bill because of Americans' unfamiliarity with the workings of their government. She cited a 2017 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania that said  about one in three people could not name their rights under the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, the press and assembly.

Senate Bill 108, which requires computer science in all high schools and middle schools, is sponsored by Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, chairman of the Senate's education committee, and is co-signed by the top-ranked senator, Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. It's also backed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

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Senate Bill 83, the Bible bill, is also co-signed by Miller,and is authored by a lawmaker with leverage: as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Jeff Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga, decides which legislation makes it — or doesn't make it — to the Senate floor for a vote.

High schools can already teach the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments. SB 83 adds the Hebrew Scriptures. It also expands what can be offered for credit about these texts and their influence on society and culture, including courses on the law, government, art, music, customs, morals and values.

 Sen. Jeff Mullis, R - Chickamauga, is the sponsor of a bill that would allow Bible teachings be expanded in Georgia high schools.
Sen. Jeff Mullis, R - Chickamauga, is the sponsor of a bill that would allow Bible teachings be expanded in Georgia high schools.

“I had some constituents that wanted to expand it,” Mullis said. He said his bill doesn’t require schools to offer such courses and doesn’t make any student take one: “It’s not a preaching bill; it’s a teaching bill.”

Technology education groups such as Code.org and Project Lead The Way support the computer science bill, which would mandate that, within four years, every school district offer a computer science course in at least one high school and “exploratory” instruction on the topic at every middle school. It would expand to half the high schools the next year and to all of them by the 2024-25 school year. Charter schools would be included.

“Computer science is a key component of developing a future workforce,” said Tim Cairl, education policy director for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which, like the Georgia Chamber and the College Board, also backs the bill.

What the bills would do

Senate Bill 83: schools can already offer courses on the history and literature of the Bible; the bill adds the Hebrew Scriptures and expands the content areas that can be taught about these texts, including their influence on art, music, government, morals and values.

Senate Bill 108: fewer than one in 200 high school graduates have taken a computer science course, and there are thousands of unfilled jobs in Georgia that demand these skills; the bill mandates a computer science offering in every public high school within six years and provides for teacher-training grants, subject to budget appropriations.

Senate Bill 219: the premise is that high school graduates don't know enough about the way their government works; the bill mandates that the U.S. Citizenship Civics Test be embedded into the mandatory U.S. history curriculum in high school and that, to earn a diploma, students correctly answer at least 60 percent of the questions (they can re-take the test until they pass it).

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