Increased teacher pay, money to secure schools and growing the ranks of school counselors will all be part of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's strategy to bolster education.
"Investments in education have brought higher graduation rates," Kemp told a crowd of business and government leaders who gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center Wednesday morning for the state Chamber of Commerce's Eggs and Issues forum. An educated workforce is key to the economy, he added.
The speech echoed Kemp's commitment while a candidate to raise pay for teachers by $5,000. Given the cost — analysts place it at $700 million or more annually — some have speculated he will break the raise into pieces to be delivered over multiple years.
Educators and lawmakers have been awaiting the new Republican governor's specific plans, since they will influence the course of this year's legislative session, already underway. But Kemp didn't reveal much, saying only that the raise will be "historic" and that he'll elaborate Thursday at his State of the State address.
He said the classroom should be a "safe haven" from would-be shooters, hence his commitment to funding school security improvements. Addressing mental health is also important for safety, he said, which elicited applause. Again, the details will be revealed Thursday, he said.
School safety has been a politically divisive issue as mass shootings, particularly one in Parkland, Fla. last year, have galvanized the public, especially students. The debate has centered on access to guns, driving an ever-deepening political and cultural wedge between Republicans and Democrats over the right to bear arms. The GOP emphasis on mental health is a reach for middle ground after an election that saw suburban Republicans fall to Democratic challengers.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan spoke next, saying he wants to cut bureaucratic red tape for teachers so they can focus on teaching. The new GOP Senate leader described the current demands of testing as a distraction.
This criticism comes three years after Congress, in a rare bipartisan move, reauthorized the nation’s education law to give states more authority over accountability and testing. Georgia took the cue soon after, passing a law that reduced the number of required standardized state tests followed by another law, last year, that created a pilot program to try out alternatives to the Georgia Milestones tests. Still, the number of standardized tests required in the state’s public schools remains above the minimum federal requirement.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, focused on other issues, such as healthcare and mental health, but his office has said the House is committed to legislation on school safety. Among the recommendations of a House study committee is an increase in the number of school counselors.
State Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, a former member of the Georgia Board of Education, said Ralston's mention of mental health was, to him, a message about education that "dovetails" with what Kemp and Duncan were saying.
"They're all working together," said Cheokas, who was elected to the House in November.
Mike Royal, a current state board member, saw the speeches as an "amazing focus on education."
That focus on schools aligns with a state Chamber goal to grow a globally competitive workforce.
Chamber President and CEO Chris Clark, readying the crowd for Kemp, said the mass retirement of baby boomers is a looming challenge for employers while the rapid evolution and expansion of knowledge in the 21st Century is increasing the difficulty of preparing the next generation.
“Think about the strain it puts on teachers and educators,” he said.
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