Kemp campaigns on ‘learning loss’ grants, boosting teachers, counselors

STATHAM — Gov. Brian Kemp outlined a second-term education agenda Monday with an additional $65 million to address “learning loss,” recruit more counselors and help school staffers become full-fledged teachers.

The money is a fraction of the state’s $10.7 billion education budget this year or the nearly $6 billion in pandemic-related federal aid for Georgia’s schools, but Kemp said a chunk of this new state funding would be targeted to tens of thousands of Georgia students.

The first $25 million would be an amendment in the current budget to help elementary school students still struggling from pandemic-related school closures, specifically rising fourth graders who read below grade level.

“We’ve targeted it after 44,000 children, not every child in the classroom,” Kemp said at a press conference outside Dove Creek Elementary School in Oconee County, where his daughter taught last year.

Eligible schools would compete for the grants, which could pay for tutoring services, more staff or other programs.

If Kemp wins reelection in November, he said he will propose $25 million in next year’s budget to help schools recruit more counselors. Another $15 million would give thousands of paraprofessionals $3,000 in reimbursable grants to offset the cost of becoming certified teachers.

The Republican also addressed safety, saying he would establish “intruder alert drills” and voluntary anti-gang training.

ExploreGeorgia schools: More guns, more shootings, more security measures

The proposals are among a handful of new policy initiatives unveiled by Kemp as he campaigns for a second term against Stacey Abrams. The Democrat has called for $50,000 base pay for teachers, and to boost school spending and repeal college campus carry” firearms laws.

“Once again, Brian Kemp’s last minute election year half-measures are too little, too late to address the serious and growing issues facing our students and educators under his watch,” said Abrams spokesman Alex Floyd. He added that Kemp’s “campaign season gimmicks won’t fool Georgia parents.”

Kemp, meanwhile, called Abrams’ plan too expensive. “Either one of two things is going to happen,” he said. “If she were governor, she’d fulfill those promises by raising your taxes or she’s not going to fulfill them and she’s not going to raise your taxes.”

Kemp framed his call for a new “learning loss” grant as a response to school districts that played “pandemic politics” by delaying a return to in-person classwork. In 2019, 73% of third-grade students were reading at or above grade level, a number that dropped to 63% this year.

After meeting a 2018 campaign promise to boost teacher pay by $5,000, Kemp’s proposal doesn’t call for another pay hike for public school educators or staffers. He said the state must explore other ways to address a shortage of public school educators.

The paraprofessional grants “will help get more teachers in the classroom,” Kemp said, “and assist Georgians already passionate about our students achieving career success.”

He said he would propose the $25 million to hire more school counselors, because he thinks they are “undeniably a critical asset to the overall health, well-being and long-term success of our future leaders.” He said educators tell him student mental health is among their top concerns.

That element of his proposal drew criticism from an Oconee County mother. Julie Mauck, the Oconee chapter president of Moms for Liberty, was the first person allowed to ask a question at Kemp’s event outside the school.

“One of the things that parents have been screaming over the past couple of years is that our schools don’t belong in the mental health or the health clinic business and we’re just seeing that unfold before our very eyes with you as governor,” Mauck said, “and to me, it’s overreach. To most Republicans, it’s overreach.”

Kemp responded that Georgia school districts have local control and could spend the money as they see fit.

His answer didn’t satisfy Mauck, who ran on the GOP ballot for the Oconee school board this year and lost in the June runoff election. She is concerned that schools will intervene in student decisions about sexuality or vaccination, without parental consent.

Though Mauck views Kemp as out of touch with what parents want on this issue, Kemp has signed several parental rights-type bills into law that were passed by the GOP-led General Assembly, including one that restricts how teachers can talk about race and another that streamlines the process for removing books that some find objectionable.

Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, a candidate for lieutenant governor who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was on hand to introduce Kemp. Jones praised him for raising teacher pay and signing legislation to “empower parents” and to reduce the number of standardized tests.