Education takes unusual back seat in Georgia election

LILBURN, Ga. (AP) — Like schools nationwide, those in Georgia will face big decisions in the years to come.

But polls show K-12 education is lagging among voters’ concerns this year, and candidates are spending more time talking about inflation, the economy, abortion and guns.

Regarding education issues, mother and former Gwinnett County teacher Missy Purcell says, “I don’t hear much. »

It’s not that Republican incumbent Governor Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams don’t have education proposals.

Abrams is proposing a big pay raise for teachers, more state-paid preschool slots for low-income families, and increased aid to universities funded by legalizing casinos. She also promises efforts to block conservative laws that limit what schools can teach about race and make it easier for parents to challenge the books.

“We need to invest in our children from cradle to career and we need to pay our educators a professional salary,” she told Democrats at their state convention in Columbus on Aug. 27. “We need to keep our teachers in the classroom, not the courtroom.

Kemp has rolled out a smaller program, including a grant program to help students learn what they’ve been missing out on during the pandemic, encourage teaching assistants to become full-fledged teachers, and boost funding for counselors. school.

“We need to do more work to address pandemic-related learning loss, bring more educators and counselors into our schools, and keep our students and staff safe,” Kemp said Monday in a school in Statham.

But other concerns seem to crowd out education, especially among Democrats.

Bringing her two children home from Camp Creek Elementary in the Gwinnett County suburb of Lilburn, Katherine Camp said her family moved to the area so her children could attend the much-loved school.

“It’s better than private school in some ways,” Camp said, noting that her two children receive special education services.

Gwinnett is Georgia’s largest school district, with 180,000 students, or more than 10% of statewide enrollment. He’s been a magnet for families, but has seen fights over district leadership in recent years as newly ascendant Democrats have taken over the school board and other county offices.

But Camp said his main issues are health care and ensuring state laws don’t prevent people from voting. Even his primary education issue, preventing school shootings, is primarily about gun control in society.

That’s a drop for what’s traditionally been a core problem, especially in southern states where literacy has lagged.

“Not just in Georgia, but across the South, individuals have been proud to be called the governor of education,” said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

In September 2018, 16% of Georgians in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll said “public schools” were the most important election issue that year, tied with health care for second place overall behind the economy. A Fox News poll in August showed that 3% of registered voters in Georgia cite “education” as their top issue in the Senate race.

“Republicans, what they want to talk about is inflation and the economy,” Bullock said. “Democrats want to talk about failed Medicaid expansion, abortion decision.”

But Georgia’s next governor and lawmakers will face crucial decisions, including whether the state should push districts harder to help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, whether the state should rewrite its K-12 funding formula, what Georgia can do to recruit and retain more teachers, and how to protect students from shootings.

Georgia is spending more than $25 billion on public schools this year, out of a $58 billion budget, an indication of how education dominates state government. Georgia’s 120,000 public school teachers have always been a key electoral bloc. For example, a teacher revolt in 2002 helped deny Democrat Roy Barnes a second term after the governor tied teacher evaluations and bonuses to student performance and eliminated tenure.

Kemp wooed teachers in 2018, promising a $5,000 pay rise that Abrams called a “gimmicky.” Kemp has delivered on that commitment and has also sought their favor by supporting measures to reduce standardized testing.

But the tone toward education has changed in Georgia after Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory in Virginia highlighted conservative complaints about schooling. This spring, as Kemp faced a Republican primary challenge, he signed a series of culturally conservative school bills, regulating how race could be taught in schools, making it easier for parents to challenge the books they considered inappropriate and pushing the state athletic association to ban transgender girls from high school sports. Youngkin comes to campaign with Kemp on Tuesday.

These movements have steam teachers. Anthony Downer, a former high school social studies teacher, is the diversity coordinator for the Decatur School District. He is also vice president of Georgia Educators for Equity and Justice, which opposes Georgia law banning the teaching of “dividing concepts” about race.

“Teachers are targeted,” Downer said. “There are situations where parents are already complaining, community members are already complaining about certain texts that deal with race or sexuality, certain lessons or activities.”

Abrams proposed raising the average teacher salary to $75,000 and guaranteeing a starting salary of $50,000. The plan would cost $1.65 billion in new spending.

That sounds appealing to Amber Karasik, a special education teacher at Jenkins Elementary School in Gwinnett County and a board member of the Gwinnett County Educators’ Association. Karasik echoes Abrams’ arguments that Georgia shouldn’t be content to rank 21st in average salary among states at $60,553 a year, though that’s significantly higher than its neighbors.

“We want to keep our best teachers, our best talent, in the state, and for someone who is considering getting a teaching degree, it would probably behoove them to move somewhere else,” Karasik said.

Kemp is not proposing a new salary increase plan. He told Statham he “would love to keep paying state employees more” and argued that teachers should trust him because he kept his $5,000 promise.

Georgia has largely left it to its 181 school districts to decide how to help students recover academically and socially from pandemic-related disruptions. But others want Georgia to better guide districts on effective teaching, pointing to states such as Mississippi that saw test scores rise after implementing the changes.

Purcell said when she briefly returned to teaching after having children, she felt Gwinnett County had done little to educate her about what had changed during her absence. Her youngest son, Matthew, struggled to read until Gwinnett County paid him to attend a special school.

“I would prefer to have a lot more direction from the state level for districts to use evidence-based curricula, especially in our core subjects like reading, writing and math,” Purcell said. “If we don’t set kids up for success from the start, we’re essentially giving them a life sentence of failure.”

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