Gov. Brian Kemp signed six education bills into law Tuesday, including sweeping legislation intended to boost the state’s ability to recruit and retain teachers after a year of uncertainty and struggle in and out of the classroom.
“As the dad of a future educator, I understand how important it is to empower our teachers so they can invest in the next generation of Georgians, and that’s why I’m proud to sign SB 88 into law,” Kemp said at a signing ceremony at Kennesaw State University’s Bagwell College of Education.
Kemp unveiled Senate Bill 88, dubbed the teacher pipeline, as one of his top priorities in February.
It creates a spot on the state board of education for the Georgia teacher of the year, institutes a new pathway for veterans to earn teaching certification and allows teachers who score highly in state evaluations to go through fewer classroom observation sessions, with districts directed to use the saved resources to mentoring teachers who score lower.
It instructs Georgia’s teaching colleges to provide courses in reading fundamentals and methods to teach students with different needs, such as gifted students, English learners or those with learning disabilities.
Another portion of Kemp’s teacher pipeline plan allows some retired teachers to come back to the classroom and still collect their pension. It is set to return in the 2022 legislative session, pending a study on its potential effect on the teacher retirement system.
“You see less people going into education, and you see a sizable number of teachers leaving the profession. It’s definitely a concern,” said Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Cobb County Republican and member of the Senate Education and Youth Committee. “We need to take all the steps that are available to us to recruit high-quality teachers, and this bill does it.”
The bill found overwhelming bipartisan support, passing the Senate unanimously and the House 171-1, with Atlanta Democratic Rep. Park Cannon the sole opposition.
It is also supported by teachers groups, including the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. PAGE legislative services director Margaret Ciccarelli said the bill is an excellent first step to addressing the state’s teacher shortage.
“It’s been a really hard year in schools across the state,” she said. “The acknowledgement that recruitment and retention is important was nice to see on the part of state leaders. There’s more work to come, however.”
This school year, Georgia slogged through a shortage of teachers across nearly all grade levels in math, special education, life science, physical science, health science and Spanish, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Teaching can be a high-stress, thankless job in good times, and the pandemic has only made things worse. Nationwide, K-12 employees’ satisfaction with their employers fell from 69% in March 2020 to 44% in October, according to a poll conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. The same poll found 38% of K-12 employees said working during the pandemic made them consider changing jobs, compared with 25% of other government employees.
“There are lots of reasons that you can have a labor shortage, but anyone who says that it’s not about money is probably selling you something,” said Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “We do know that if you pay teachers in line with what they could make outside the classroom, you’re much less likely to have a shortage, especially in the high-needs areas like special education.”
Kemp pledged to raise teacher salaries by $5,000 on the campaign trail in 2018. In 2019, he signed a budget that included $3,000 raises, promising more increases were to come, but COVID-19 scuttled any talk of increasing spending inside the Capitol in 2020.
The budget the Legislature passed this year includes one-time $1,000 teacher retention bonuses paid for with federal relief funds.
Overall, Georgia schools are set to receive just over $5.9 billion in federal cash infusions, which will make a huge difference in fixing the problems caused by the pandemic and school closures, such as making up for learning loss and overcoming social and emotional health issues, Owens said. But that federal money is temporary and only intended to mitigate damage caused by the pandemic.
“Unless the state goes about changing the way that we fund students, then it really is going to be one-time funding, so it would be better for the short-term, summer programs, fix the HVAC, short-term hires,” he said.
Thanks largely to the influx of federal cash, lawmakers reversed about half of the cuts to public education made since the pandemic began, with about $561 million in cuts from FY 2020 funding levels remaining, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“There was some discussion this session that the schools were, quote-unquote, ‘overfunded’ because of all the federal funding,” Owens said. “It is a lot, but it might not be enough to actually address the harm caused by the pandemic educationally, and that one-time funding is a lot different than having the state commit to adequately fund schools.”
Leaving the classroom
As president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, Verdaillia Turner hears from a lot of teachers who are thinking about leaving the profession.
Before the pandemic, many Georgia educators already said they felt locked out of decision making, had too much paperwork and had too little planning time, she said.
When schools reopened in the fall after shutting their doors with the arrival of the virus last spring, some teachers said they felt forced back into the classroom without regard for their safety but were too afraid to speak up, Turner said.
“We saw what was done with this tomfoolery in reopening schools,” she said. “Then they’re talking about, ‘Oh, we want to applaud you for being resilient and opening,’ and they didn’t have a choice. They didn’t have a choice because superintendents are bureaucrats and boards are political.”
Teacher COVID-19 deaths made headlines in communities across the state, including in Cobb County, where a teacher and a paraprofessional died on the same day in January after another elementary school teacher died on Christmas.
The tension came to a head early in the year when teacher groups called on the governor to make school employees eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Kemp refused, citing low supplies and the need to vaccinate older Georgians, who are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill from the disease.
Kemp added teachers to the vaccine list March 8, and the state’s entire adult population became eligible March 25.
The role of teachers in determining school policy is a constant topic of debate at the Capitol, Ciccarelli said.
“I think more work needs to be done in these areas,” she said. “I think those policy areas are more tricky to address, and it is a perennial discussion under the Gold Dome about the teacher voice within the school community and how to balance the needs of school districts.”
Kemp is scheduled to sign another group of education-related bills Thursday, including a controversial expansion of school vouchers to accommodate more Georgia students with special needs.