Teacher pay raises, school vouchers top k-12 legislative watch list

Dominique Nichols, coordinator of the Freshman Academy at Westside High School in Macon-Bibb County, talked to students in a 9th grade English class in August. He is among the teachers who received part of a promised raise this year and is anxious to find out if state lawmakers will fund the rest of the pledged amount in 2020. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s school and teacher organizations are gearing up for a busy 2020 legislative session with state lawmakers potentially taking up on school vouchers, the Teacher Retirement System, dual enrollment, teacher pay raises and much more.

Below is a watch list of big public education policy and funding priorities the Georgia Recorder will track in 2020. The budget for k-12 schools this year is $10.6 billion of the state’s $27.5 billion budget, which helps educate 2 million Georgia children.

School Vouchers

The controversial “education scholarship accounts”, also known as school vouchers, are expected to remain a priority for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan after falling short in 2019.

The voucher proposal would allow parents to use state funding provided to public schools for other educational services like private school tuition, after-school programs or speech therapy sessions.

Voucher advocates say they could give parents the ability to decide what works best for their child.

Critics argue vouchers are often used to subsidize private school tuition, while taking away much-needed funding from public schools. Also, some critics from teacher organizations complain voucher programs tend to lack transparency.

Teacher Pay Raises

Educators applauded the $3,000 in teacher pay raises delivered in this year’s budget by Gov. Brian Kemp and state lawmakers.

However, lawmakers will need to squeeze nickels in the 2021 budget in order to deliver on the rest of the $5,000 raise Kemp promised on the campaign trail last year. Kemp has mandated department and agency budget cuts in anticipation of an economic slowdown, although the state Department of Education is largely exempted.

Teacher organizations say those raises are a morale boost and expect lawmakers will work hard to find the remaining $2,000 of the raise in the next year or two.

Fully funding the $5,000 raises, including state retirement contributions, is estimated to cost $697 million.

The state also gave a 2% raise this year to other school staff, including bus drivers, school nurses and nutritionists.

Teacher retirement system

House Bill 109 is among several bills in the House and Senate that could tinker with the terms of the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia, always risky business in an election year for state lawmakers.

That bill, sponsored by retired teacher Rep. Tommy Benton, proposes to require new teachers to pay more into their retirement systems as a way to deal with the $78 billion pension system.

The legislation would set a larger cap on employee contributions into the teachers pension fund.

The state was asked to contribute $600 million more to the retirement system in 2017 and 2018 combined. Since 2002, Georgia’s economy grew by 23% while state teacher pension contributions grew by 67%, according to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Teacher organizations say they’re concerned that some of the proposed changes to the retirement system could have a chilling effect on teacher recruitment and retention.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators says it will continue working with Benton and other lawmakers for a palatable solution.

Dual enrollment, transportation funding

Georgia legislators want to curb some of the escalating costs for students enrolled in college courses while still in high school, called dual enrollment.

The Georgia School Board Association says it opposes measures like House Bill 444 that would cap the amount of college credits a student can earn as well.

Kemp’s vetoes, but could those issues crop up again?

Kemp vetoed two school bills last session, including the Keeping Schools Safe Act and another that would have mandated k-8 students have daily recess.

The school safety bill proposed that districts complete threat assessments of facilities to help prepare and maintain safety plans

Instead, the governor supported awarding $69 million in school safety grants through the education budget, which allows school boards to decide how the money will be spent.

Expect more discussion about school safety during the upcoming session.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.