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Guns and Critical Race Theory Will Be Hot Topics for the General Assembly

Editor’s Note: The Georgia legislature gaveled in for its annual 40-day session on Jan. 10. Here’s a look at some issues they’re likely to tackle from

Teachers and administrators from across the state agree critical race theory is not discussed in Georgia grade school classrooms, but it likely will be a hot topic in January as lawmakers return for an election-year legislative session. But with restrictions on schools teaching about racism and other cultural issues dominating the discussion before the session begins, some worry more pressing problems like school funding could get short shrift.

Critical race theory, a term for a legal framework developed in the 1970s defining racism as arising from social forces rather than individual prejudice, has become a catch-all for instruction that acknowledges racist structures in American history like redlining and Jim Crow. Opponents argue focusing on these issues and tying them to modern problems weighing on racial minorities is divisive and paints people as oppressors or victims based on their race.

According to Google Trends, searches for critical race theory were mostly flat from when tracking began in 2004 until last May, when internet interest spiked. That’s about the same time parents started showing up to school board meetings across the state to demand an end to so-called critical race theory lessons.

During a May Cherokee County school board meeting, state Rep. Brad Thomas, a Republican from Holly Springs, said he had already started writing a bill to ban critical race theory in schools. The next month, the Georgia Board of Education approved a resolution that did not mention critical race theory by name but asserted that the United States is not racist and that public school students should only be taught that slavery and racism are betrayals of the country’s founding principles.

Cumming Republican state Sen. Greg Dolezal listed the idea as one of the top targets of Georgia’s new Freedom Caucus, which he chairs. “When we see dangerous ideology creeping into our schools, we think that monitoring, making sure our children are taught how to think and not what to think is at the forefront of what we can do legislatively,” he said. “Our K through 12 education budget represents 38% of the budget here in the state of Georgia, and we want to make sure that investment is spent in a way that parents can be proud of.”

Parental involvement in school decisions and minority representation are both important discussions, said Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, but it can be frustrating when cultural clashes seem to drown out more grounded issues.

“We have kids in the middle of a pandemic, with this new wave of the coronavirus, schools are operating under historic budget cuts, we’re having a difficult time staffing schools, specifically with substitute teachers and school bus drivers, so there are actual crises that are going on inside public schools, and then there’s CRT,” he said. “They’re two completely separate things.”

Owens said he’ll be watching House Bill 10, which would provide additional funds to schools that serve students living in poverty. “Georgia is one of only eight states in the union that doesn’t provide additional funding specifically to educate students living in poverty, so we’re hoping that we can advance a bill like House Bill 10,” he said. “That’d be about $343 million. It’s a bipartisan issue, this is something that Gov. Deal’s Education Reform Commission came up with in 2015, and now, Democrats have signed onto a bill, we’re hoping to get a good bipartisan legislation across the finish line.”

It’s also a good bet that private school vouchers will come up again in 2022. In 2021, a bill from Woodstock Republican Rep. Wes Cantrell to expand vouchers to more families passed out of committee but never got a full House vote.

The state budget might be the one piece of legislation with the greatest impact on Georgia’s public school students. The budget passed earlier this year marks the 18th year out of the past 20 that Georgia has failed to meet the minimum public school funding based on its Quality Basic Education formula, or QBE. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia schools have received nearly $6 billion in federal money from the CARES Act, CARES II and the American Rescue Plan.

“We have really solid revenue numbers, there is absolutely opportunity to fill in QBE, do a number of other policies, such as perhaps finish off the teacher pay raises,” Owens said. “But I think moving forward is my bigger concern. We continue to balance budgets in the state of Georgia on the backs of children. Right now, we have this historic investment in federal dollars, it’s really good for these one-time issues, such as fixing the HVAC, extending the school day, maybe one-time bonuses for staff. But schools are afraid to use this money in a way that actually increases staff for fear that it’s going to be gone in a couple years.”

[By Ross Williams; read a longer version of this article here.]

Guns, Guns and More Guns

Gov. Brian Kemp plans to make firearms a central issue of the coming legislative session with the announcement of his support of legislation to expand gun rights.

Kemp did not go into specifics speaking at a Jan. 5 press conference at a massive gun store and indoor shooting range in Smyrna, but he pledged to support “constitutional carry,” a term used by gun rights advocates to describe states where those who are entitled to own a firearm do not need a license.

“It will be a true constitutional carry, and I’ll kind of defer that to us working the details out,” Kemp said. “And the good thing is I think there’s like 12 constitutional carry bills that are filed, many by members that are standing behind me today, so we’re going to work with them to perfect the legislation, and we’ll be talking more about that in the days to come, but this is basically just going to give people their constitutional right to carry without a piece of paper from the government.”

Kemp can’t pass legislation on his own, but he wields significant influence at the state Capitol as the Republican governor of a Republican majority state. He made gun issues a central issue of his 2018 campaign, gaining national attention for one ad in which Kemp jokingly pointed a firearm at a young man who wanted to woo his daughter.

Last year, a bill to expand gun rights faltered after a deadly shooting spree at Asian American-owned spas in Cherokee County and Atlanta shocked the nation. House Speaker David Ralston told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month he could be open to constitutional carry legislation during the session, depending on the specifics of language.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan struck a similar tone speaking with reporters at the Capitol Jan. 5, calling himself a strong Second Amendment supporter, but saying he will need to see the details of Kemp’s proposal before deciding whether he will support it. “I’m looking for which vehicle makes the most sense for the 11 million Georgians,” he said.

Kemp’s announcement comes after former Sen. David Perdue, his most serious challenger in the GOP primary, criticized the governor for not passing a gun right expansion sooner. “Law-abiding citizens should be able to exercise their Second Amendment rights to carry a firearm without having to pay for and carry a government permit,” Perdue said in a statement. “Twenty-one states have constitutional carry, but despite his promises on the campaign trail, Brian Kemp has failed to make it a reality in Georgia. As governor, I’ll work with the state legislature to finally enact constitutional carry.”

The campaign of Stacey Abrams, the Democrat Kemp or Perdue will likely face after the primary, also took a swipe at the move. “The same guy who pointed a gun at a teenager on TV now panders with reckless proposals threatening Georgia lives,” tweeted Abrams’ campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo. “As her opponents run to dangerous extremes and fight desperately to salvage their political careers, @staceyabrams is fighting for Georgians and their safety.”

[By Ross Williams; read a longer version of this article here.]

Setting the Senate Agenda

Duncan’s to-do list during his final year includes a tax credit to boost law enforcement, more resources for foster care, and higher wages for correctional officers.

Duncan said that his focus will remain on completing his duties and getting his priorities passed before his time in the Senate concludes at the end of 2022. Then he plans to focus on his GOP 2.0 initiative aimed at retaking the Republican Party from the grips of former president Donald Trump and moving on from the 2020 election.

During the passage of the controversial election law overhaul through Senate Bill 202 last year, Duncan refused to preside over a debate on restricting absentee voting access, but ultimately supported the final Republican measure that’s now facing multiple lawsuits over claims of voter suppression.

During the upcoming session, Duncan said lawmakers should not focus on sending political messages or dwelling on the false claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election. “I think from a political perspective, I think we should be done talking about the 2020 election cycle and we should move forward politically in a way that makes the most sense and builds more consensus,” Duncan said.

Additionally, Duncan elaborated on his crime-fighting plan, the “Less Crime Act,” which would set up a $250 million tax credit for individuals and businesses that donate to local police departments and sheriff’s offices through certified law enforcement foundations. Duncan’s plan is for departments to use the donated money to hire more officers, increase pay, provide more training, purchase equipment and improve resources to handle mental health related emergencies.

Duncan said he also hopes to create a foster care program that provides wrap-around services as teens age out of foster care. Another foster care initiative will be to work with Kemp and agencies to provide more resources to keep children out of extended-stay hotels when they don’t already have a foster parent.

[By Stanley Dunlap; read a longer version of this article here.]