Lieutenant Governor-Elect Geoff Duncan (left) shakes Governor-Elect Brian Kemp’s hand after introducing him during the 31st Biennial Institute for Georgia legislators luncheon at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education last year. Many legislators are waiting to see what education issues they will leave their mark on. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

New leaders to plot course for Georgia schools

Governor-elect Brian Kemp made an education campaign promise that was as simple to understand as it was consequential: pay teachers more.

Advocates and lawmakers say a raise is long overdue, but the hefty price tag leaves Capitol watchers wondering whether the state will have anything else to offer students and schools during the 2019 legislative session.

Adding to the uncertainty are vacancies in the leadership of the Senate and House education committees, especially after a political season that left a third of the seats on the House committee open. New leadership in the Senate further fogs the view. Lt. Governor-elect Geoff Duncan, who as the presiding officer in the Senate will have a hand in committee appointments, served in the House but didn’t leave much of a mark on education.

“The story of the year is one of change,” said Michael O’Sullivan, an education lobbyist. “Everything’s in flux.”

Kemp isn’t ready to share his plans, but in addition to teacher pay raises, he campaigned on overhauling the 34-year-old school funding formula, improving literacy rates, increasing rural access to online education, promoting charter schools and making schools safer.

Duncan agrees with Kemp’s pay goal. Duncan’s spokesman, Joe Hendricks, outlined in broad strokes what will be on the education agenda of the next lieutenant governor, who, he noted, has three boys in public school: reduce or eliminate standardized testing, “remove bureaucracy” from the classroom, increase community involvement and empower parents “with additional options,” Hendricks wrote in an email.

House Speaker David Ralston’s office, meanwhile, said school safety will be a priority.

School districts and education advocacy groups have their own wish lists, from additional money to pay for services like special education to new funding for charter schools.

Kemp’s teacher raise — $5,000 each for 100,000-plus teachers — would Hoover up an estimated $800 million, nearly all of the projected new revenue in the growing budget. That is why some, including O’Sullivan, who’d like to see more money to renovate old charter school buildings, are expecting Kemp to finesse his commitment to teachers by breaking up their pay raise over time.

“My guess is, he will do it over multiple years,” O’Sullivan said.

That could leave money on the table for other priorities, though it’s unclear if there would be enough for an overhaul of the Quality Basic Education Act, which created the school funding formula in 1985 and, observers say, is unaligned with today’s needs and costs.

A succession of governors tried and failed to modernize it. It is a politically tricky task, with the potential of increasing the state’s financial commitment to education. Gov. Nathan Deal’s effort to overhaul it fizzled in his second term.

“One of the most common complaints that we’ve heard is it hasn’t kept up with inflation,” said Valarie Wilson, the executive director of the Georgia School Board Association.

The state Department of Education is expecting more money this year, in part because the percentage of students who qualify for costly special education services has grown.

But those involved say the needs exceed what the funding formula dictates. For instance, the federal paperwork associated with serving special needs has grown so “onerous” that teachers feel overwhelmed, said Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley. His district wants more money to hire assistants for special education teachers.

“The teachers are telling me they’re spending so much time on paperwork that it’s taking time away from them with students,” he said.

School safety is one area where lawmakers could come to an agreement. Senate and House committees studied the issue last year. The 17 recommendations from the Senate and the 13 by the House intersect on some priorities.

“I expect you will see their recommendations form the basis for one or more pieces of legislation or budget proposals,” Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for Ralston, said of the House proposals.

Both committees recommended hiring more school counselors, something Kemp also has backed.

So much of what could happen will be determined by Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and other leading lawmakers, including those who end up in charge of the education committees.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, relinquished his chairmanship of the Senate Education and Youth committee last year, and there has been no word from Duncan’s office about a successor.

While Duncan’s career as a state representative sheds little light on his education policy interests, he has tapped former state Rep. Mike Dudgeon as his policy leader.

Dudgeon, a former Forsyth County school board member who also served in the state House, backed initiatives for school districts such as greater flexibility from state rules. He also promoted alternatives to traditional public school, including charter schools and private schools, proposing one bill that would have let employers establish in-house charter schools for the children of their workforce and another that would have put public money into private savings accounts for use on personal education expenses, such as school tuition and counseling.

Dudgeon partnered on that latter bill with former state Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, now Kemp’s director of external affairs.

The future of the House Education Committee is even more uncertain. Longtime chairman Brooks Coleman, of Gwinnett County, didn’t run for re-election; neither did his vice chairman David Casas, another Gwinnett Republican. Retirements, resignations and lost elections cost another seven members spots on the 27-member committee.

The new chairmen in the House and Senate — expected to be named next week — will bring a new legislative focus.

Until then, rank-and-file members say they don’t know what to expect.

“I’ve heard lots of names, but I’ve got no idea,” said Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock. Still, the appointments of Dudgeon and Hamilton are, for him, a promising sign. Last year, Cantrell unsuccessfully pushed his own version of an educational savings account, an effort he hopes to renew this year.

Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, a member of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, wants to introduce legislation to help students with dyslexia, but things are so uncertain he’s not sure he will be kept on the committee.

He had no idea whom the GOP-led Senate would put in charge of education, with the exception of one thing:

“I mean, more than likely, it’s going to be a Republican,” he said.

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