Gov. Brian Kemp and his Republican allies are trying to channel the same electoral forces that powered Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia by embracing cultural issues in the classroom they hope will drive worried parents to the polls.
But the comprehensive effort to put K-12 schools on the political front lines, cemented Thursday at a bill-signing ceremony in Forsyth County, also risks alienating teachers and others who oppose the election-year overhaul.
Kemp began sharpening his education strategy in November, shortly after Youngkin defeated a Democratic front-runner by appealing to both Donald Trump supporters and more moderate suburbanites with a focus on classroom issues.
The results of that effort are front and center at a politically opportune time for Kemp. He signed the measures into law as he’s trying to land a knockout blow against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, his Trump-backed challenger, in the May 24 GOP primary.
The centerpiece of the package seeks to direct how public school educators teach students about race and “divisive concepts” and creates an oversight committee that could block transgender students from playing on sports teams that don’t match the gender on their birth certificate.
Another measure signed Thursday makes it easier for parents to seek to remove books considered “obscene” or inappropriate from public school classrooms and coursework.
A third increases the size of a program that allows taxpayers to contribute to private school scholarships for a tax credit. And a fourth is framed as a new legal guarantee that gives parents more say in their children’s curriculum.
Already on the books is a law that lets parents opt their children out of mask mandates. That came shortly after Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic rival, drew backlash for taking maskless photos at a school surrounded by masked students and teachers.
The governor’s allies hail the measures as a counterstroke to a “one-size-fits-all approach” to classroom policy.
“Public education should teach students how to read, write and think critically,” said Jessica Anderson of the conservative group Heritage Action for America. “It should never be used as a way to indoctrinate children with any kind of political agenda.”
Democratic state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick has a different name for the new laws. She and other allies see it as an effort to pander to conservative voters peppered with misinformation about “critical race theory” and other buzzwords.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
“I call it the ‘Georgians rights to not know’ package based on hiding hard truths and facts and replacing it with conservative talking points,” Kendrick said.
The setting of the bill-signing ceremony also unnerved many of the opponents. Local teachers and historians are worried that the conservative furor over K-12 policies will complicate their efforts to bring more attention to a 1912 racial purge in Forsyth County.
“A noisy minority has come with a political agenda to incite fear,” said Laura Mcconn, a member of a local Democratic group. “We’re not going anywhere, and we’re going to continue to push for what is right for our students.”
Though Kemp didn’t specifically mention the incidents in Forsyth from 110 years ago, he predicted the legislation would bring more clarity to educators.
“It ensures all of our state and nation’s history is taught accurately because here in Georgia, our classrooms will not be pawns of those who want to indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas,” Kemp said.
More problems or more protection?
While school issues typically play a prominent role during legislative sessions, debates over K-12 challenges usually revolve around financing.
But with flush state coffers allowing lawmakers to increase funding and boost teacher pay, Republican politicians devoted a level of attention to classroom policies that was unprecedented in recent Georgia history.
And Kemp, who has a commanding lead over Perdue in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this week, is taking every step he can to avoid a divisive June runoff that could leave the GOP nominee limping into a November matchup against Abrams.
In the last few days, Kemp has celebrated the National Rifle Association’s endorsement, rallied with law enforcement officers, approved an election measure sought by Trump loyalists and traveled to Perdue’s hometown to sign into law a sharp income tax cut.
The rise of virtual schooling during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic factored into Kemp’s education package, as many parents were suddenly more connected with what was — and what wasn’t — being taught in their children’s classroom.
Leo Smith, a former Georgia GOP minority outreach director, said the new awareness of classroom policies will help Kemp and other Republicans leverage the education changes to appeal beyond core conservative voters.
“Kemp is reaching into the hearts of a broad demographic of Georgians — center, right and left — who want a more localized and personalized education,” he said. “Now the school systems will have to adjust to how the policy is implemented.”
Already, teachers and school administrators face intense scrutiny over what’s being taught. Some local school boards are the scenes of raucous pushback over public health protocol. Others grapple with censorship campaigns from upset parents.
Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC
Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC
Former Atlanta school board Chair Jason Esteves said the Kemp-backed education measures will only cause more problems for teachers and administrators.
“Unfortunately, they do little to actually give parents more rights and instead add to the administrative burden teachers already encounter in their work,” said Esteves, a Democrat who is now running for an open seat in the Georgia Senate.
“It will exasperate the challenge school districts are having to recruit and retain teachers,” he said.
At a Suwanee event, Abrams predicted the law would create a chilling effect by threatening to move “teachers out of the classroom and into the courtroom” if they dared educate students about grave moments in U.S. history such as the internment of Asian-Americans during World War II.
“We should never sign legislation that authorizes lying to our children – because that’s what this is,” said Abrams, who said she would have vetoed the proposals.
“When we give our children an incomplete history, when we refuse to discuss the daily lives that they will live and the history that has brought us here, we are not doing justice to our children.”
‘The oldest trick in the book’
Democrats and civil rights groups are particularly outraged by the transgender measure, which passed with little debate in the final minutes of the legislative session after years of gaining no traction under the Gold Dome.
The measure doesn’t outright ban transgender girls from competing in sports, but it empowers the Georgia High School Association to make that decision.
State Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner who is openly gay, said it’s part of an overall GOP strategy to “make Georgians afraid of one another, then divide and conquer.”
“Singling out minority groups as the problem or threat is the oldest trick in the book,” Wilson said.
Republican state Rep. Will Wade, a sponsor of the legislation, said it’s designed to “make sure these young athletes have every opportunity to succeed.”
Still, supporters can’t point to any instances of transgender high school girls competing in girls sports in Georgia schools — a fact that critics are quick to point out.
Becky Woomer, a Forsyth County parent who opposes the education package, said the bills “pose a burden on teachers while limiting student freedom to read and learn.”
“It feels like a political ploy on the part of the Republican Legislature,” Woomer said. “Political meddling in schools is the real ‘divisive concept.’ ”
The governor, meanwhile, is also facing pressure from critics on his right flank for not acting more aggressively earlier in his term. At Sunday’s WSB-TV debate, Perdue accused Kemp of waiting “until the last minute to make this an election-year issue.”
Kemp dismissed the attacks, saying his policies codify a belief that “parents know better than the government” in Georgia.
“We passed this piece of legislation to make sure our kids are not going to be indoctrinated in our schools,” he said. “I’ve never said that we don’t need to teach race or history. But it needs to be the facts, not somebody’s ideology.”
Credit: Ben Gray
Credit: Ben Gray
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