GAE’s 2022 legislative priorities include underscoring the harmful consequences of public school waivers

For Immediate Release
January 11, 2022

GAE's 2022 legislative priorities include underscoring the harmful consequences of public school waivers

ATLANTA – “The 2022 Georgia Legislative Session is shaping up to be one of the more challenging in recent memory,” said Lisa Morgan, kindergarten teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE). “While GAE will continue to concentrate on its specific priorities for the session, we will be keenly aware and ready to address any legislation that seeks to undermine and/or dismantle the fundamental constructs that have allowed public education to be the foundation of our democracy."

Under the constantly shifting shadow of COVID-19, which GAE continues to stress following the mitigation strategies of the pandemic experts at the Centers for Disease Control, GAE’s priorities for the 2022 Georgia General Assembly are as follows:

GAE is the only organization calling attention to the unintended and harmful consequences of school system waivers on students, parents, and educators. As a result of legislation that passed several years ago, laws pertaining to public education can simply be ignored by school districts with a cursory approval from the state school board. Currently, so-called Strategic Waiver School Systems (SWSS) can petition the state Department of Education for waivers in exchange for a low-level indicator of student academic achievement. Waivers essentially give local school boards "veto power” over any education law in the state and in doing so renders the legislative process, as it pertains to public education, meaningless.

For example, 99 percent of Georgia public schools now operate with no limits on class size, because of waivers, despite state laws and Department regulations that limit the maximum number of students per class and per teacher. Reducing class size has been shown to directly impact the effectiveness of classroom instruction and student outcomes positively.

Morgan cites an example of 130 (out of 132) SWSS systems have waived class size and reporting requirements. “This has led to larger classes that study after study has shown is not conducive to providing the best teaching and learning environment for our children,” said Morgan. “This law allows systems to do this with impunity (no reporting) and with no input from educators or parents. Other standards that can be waived include health and PE classes, fair dismissal for educators, English as a Second Language (ESOL) instruction, and duty-free lunch – all important elements for a healthy school environment.”

GAE-backed legislation, HB 518, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Mitchell (D-Snellville), would prohibit waivers for class size maximums, health and physical education requirements, salary-step requirements, and fair dismissal rights - all rules, laws and standards in Georgia that many schools have waived.

A perennial challenge, GAE fully expects legislation to again be dropped to further enrich current voucher programs or add even more. GAE continues to stand on principle in opposing voucher bills because state taxpayer money should not be taken away from public schools to pay for private school tuition.

This past session, HB 60, which creates a new, private school voucher program, in the form of taxpayer-funded, tax-exempt accounts for use in private secondary and post-secondary institutions, passed the House Education Committee but stalled in the Rules Committee and was never sent to the full House for a vote. Earlier this year, GAE President Morgan issued a statement on taxpayer-paid private school tuition bills.

There continues to be a concern of the lack of transparency and accountability in Georgia’s voucher programs - according to the state’s own Georgia Department of Audits. HB 60 would continue the legacy of vouchers not providing accountability to taxpayers for the use of public funds.

GAE will monitor the completion of the governor's promised teacher pay raise plan. We all know the governor, as part of his campaign, promised teachers a $5,000 increase to the salary step schedule. A $3,000-raise was approved in 2020. GAE expects that the governor's 2022 proposed budget will include the final $2,000 raise to complete his promise.

FULL-FUNDING OF QBE (after two years of cuts to public education of about $800 million)

GAE will continue to assert the need of continuing to fully fund QBE or the Quality Basic Education Act. Among the obvious benefits of this would also be the option to address sorely needed pay increases for our deserving education support professionals or ESPs. COVID-19 has brought to light just how critical and essential our bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, lunchroom workers, and all support staff are in the efficient running of our public schools, and they deserve to be paid as such.

“The ARP includes $3.8 billion in funding for Georgia’s K-12 education of which local districts are to receive 90 percent,” said Morgan. “These much needed funds could be used to eliminate furloughs; continue free meals for students; provide reliable internet, laptops and other technology; and add more counselors and social workers to schools and more; and paid for COVID-related medical leave.”

Morgan emphasizes that a key requirement of the ARP funds is for our state Department of Education (DOE) and local school districts to meet with educators and their representative organizations such as GAE and its members locally throughout the state. “GAE already has taken the initiative to meet with the Georgia DOE and we’ve submitted written comments from our members. We have activated our members locally to ensure they have contact and a say in how their local funding is being applied,” Morgan said.

A recent study by the NEA shows that teachers who have gone through the non-traditional path to teaching are more likely to leave the profession in the first 5 years.
GAE will be championing HB 385, a bill to allow retired educators - after a year in retirement - to continue to draw their TRS benefits while returning to work full-time. The legislation was offered to the address the critical shortage of teachers in the state. Under HB 385, the employer would pay the employee and employer TRS contributions. The bill is authored by Rep. Shaw Blackmon (R-Bonaire) and embraced by Gov. Kemp. And, of course, nothing attracts like a competitive salary and improved working conditions.