Photo Credit: House Photo Office
In addition to potential tax breaks for the music industry, the UGA Biennial Institute—a series of educational seminars for state legislators held in Athens last month—also featured talks on other topics the legislature will be tackling, now that's it's convened for its annual 40-day session.
Despite the defeat of Deal’s Opportunity School District amendment in November, legislators were optimistic for the future of Georgia education at the biennial conference. “I think we’re actually gonna get it this time!” said House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth).
Although no specific “Plan B” to OSD was revealed, he said there will be a “six-step” reform plan to address failing schools.
Little else was said, but according to the AJC, Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), a member of the House Education Committee who will be heading up the Republican proposal, indicated a new measure would give the governor-appointed members of the Georgia Board of Education more power to intervene in struggling schools.
“We want to brief some other folks on this before we talk publicly. We want to work within the existing system we already have, working with the state board of education and the school superintendent,” Tanner told the AJC. “We’re not creating a new bureaucracy, it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment.”
What was discussed in detail, however, were the 46 recommendations from 90 teachers across the state gathered by Deal’s Educational Reform Committee. Teachers of various subjects, grade levels and regions shared their concerns with legislators, summed up and presented by Teacher Advisory Committee Chair Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta), the only practicing teacher in the General Assembly. Here are a few:
• Assist districts in developing strategic compensation models for teachers, in order to “have the flexibility to choose the model that meets their own set of unique needs.” Models would be based not only on years of experience and level of education, but by “actual school duties” and extra responsibilities like mentoring new and student teachers and supervising extracurricular activities.
• Increase K-12 educational funding to help local districts “recruit, retain and reward the most effective teachers and maintain competitive teacher salaries.” The current base salary of $33,424 in Georgia has been a deterrent into the profession, leading to an over 16 percent decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs in the last five years, Carter said. “We want teaching to be viewed as a worthy profession.”
• Return to a “normal” curricular adoption cycle, and maintain a high bar of consideration before implementing major changes outside a six-year cycle, instead of every year. “We have to find something and stick with it,” Carter said. “When teachers are making their plans for the year, things changing are distracting and discouraging.”
• Investigate the benefit of re-instituting the service cancelable loan programs for students graduating from a University System of Georgia teacher education program, so that educators will be more likely to stay and teach in the state.
Whatever form the new legislation takes, the concerns and requests of teachers are being considered across partisan lines. “We all know there are great schools in this state, whose students can compete with anybody in the world, but we also know that there are schools that struggle to meet the needs of their students, and it’s for those students that we continue to work with education reform,” said Susan Andrews, director of special projects for the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. “If it were easy or if it were simple, we would have figured this out a long time ago.” [Martha Michael]
Unlike K-12 education, it looks like 2017 will be a status-quo year for higher education. Neither Deal nor newly appointed University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley took the opportunity to announce any new initiatives during their Biennial speeches.
For Georgia’s public colleges and universities, the focus this year will be on keeping costs down, Wrigley said. Partly to make up for state budget cuts during the Great Recession, the Board of Regents nearly doubled tuition since 2006, while costs for room and board have also risen sharply, and money spent on instruction has declined, a recent USG audit found. That’s led lawmakers to pressure the chancellor and regents to keep tuition and fees in check.
“We know we must do more to control costs and be more efficient,” Wrigley said. “We have heard your concerns about costs. We don’t take your support for granted…
“We recognize [tuition] is a source of concern for the people of this state and you, their representatives,” he told legislators. “We as a university system have to make it our first priority to control costs, not raise revenue.”
Online courses, free e-textbooks, replacing remedial courses with tutoring, “degree road maps” to help students avoid taking unnecessary classes and encouraging students to take a full load of 15 credit-hours per semester are among the ways Wrigley proposed to keep costs in check.
Although “it is fashionable to say today that a college education does not impart practical knowledge,” Wrigley also played up the economic development value of a college degree. Forty-seven percent of Georgians went to college, ranking 23rd among states, but 60 percent of jobs require a degree, he said. “If we want companies to come here or our residents to start companies here, we have to have an educated workforce,” he said. [Blake Aued]
Thanks to the transportation tax reform the legislature passed in 2015, funding for the Georgia Department of Transportation has doubled to $1.7 billion. GDOT has stepped up road and bridge maintenance and is embarking on a number of major projects, including rebuilding the clogged Georgia 400 interchange at I-85 and new express lanes on I-75, director Russell McMurray told lawmakers. While most upcoming projects are in metro Atlanta—which McMurray said has the ninth-worst traffic in the country—GDOT also plans on widening the two-lane portion of U.S. 441 through Oconee, Morgan and Putnam counties.
Two other transportation agencies—the State Road and Tollway Authority and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority—are planning to merge. The combined agency will operate the Peach Pass express-lane program, as well as express buses. State senators announced last week that they’ll explore further consolidation of transit authorities in the metro Atlanta region. “This is a Georgia problem, not simply an Atlanta problem,” said a statement from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (R-Athens). “A regional solution is needed. A robust plan, developed between committed, local stakeholders and industry experts, will form the blueprint for Georgia’s path forward.”
Of course, the legislature is sure to take on some, shall we say, less weighty issues not mentioned at the Biennial. Already one lawmaker, Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) caused a furor by pre-filing, then quickly withdrawing a bill banning Muslim women from wearing burkas in their driver’s license photos. Expect to see controversial “religious freedom” and “campus carry” bills make a comeback, too, after Deal vetoed them last year. [BA]