Lawmakers focused on many issues critical to Georgians during the 2021 legislative session, including education. Private school vouchers, teacher retention strategies, revisions to charter school regulations, and funding for public schools were among the education topics legislators addressed.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was a factor in some legislation and influenced how the General Assembly operated this year. Some committee meetings were held virtually, fewer legislators and lobbyists gathered in the halls, access to the velvet ropes outside House and Senate chambers was blocked, and installation of permanent fencing around the Capitol perimeter began. The PAGE Legislative Team advocated on behalf of PAGE members and Georgia students both onsite in Atlanta and via expanded virtual options.
This report highlights education-related legislation that passed the General Assembly, offers an overview of the state’s budget, and identifies notable bills that were not approved. It also provides links to lawmakers’ voting records for several high-profile bills.
Gov. Brian Kemp has 40 days from the final day of the legislative session, which concluded on March 31, to sign or veto legislation that passed. Bills that are signed by May 10 become effective on July 1, 2021, unless another date is specified within the legislation. Legislation which did not pass can move forward during the 2022 session, which is the second year of Georgia’s current legislative biennium.
Bills That Passed
SB 88, sponsored by Sen. Russ Goodman (R-Cogdell) on behalf of Gov. Kemp, incorporates components of the governor’s teacher pipeline initiative. This PAGE-supported bill requires the state teacher of the year be invited annually by the State Board of Education (SBOE) to serve as a non-voting advisory board member.
Clears a path for U.S. Military veterans to become certified teachers by allowing local school districts to employ veterans using a three-year provisional certificate and awarding them three years of service on the state teacher salary schedule.
Requires local school districts using tiered evaluation systems to apply resources saved due to reduced evaluation of veteran teachers and apply those resources to coaching and mentoring new teachers with three or fewer years of experience and teachers with performance ratings of “Needs Development” or “Ineffective.”
Requires state teacher preparation programs to provide coursework in differentiated instruction and fundamental reading skills.
Supports the creation of initiatives with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) designed to increase student enrollment and completion of teacher education programs.
Tax Credit for Teachers in High Needs Areas
HB 32 by Rep. Dave Belton (R-Buckhead) is a PAGE-supported bill which awards a $3,000 annual tax credit to teachers who are newly hired by certain rural schools or schools performing in the lowest five percent on Georgia's College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) school accountability system. Areas of highest need will be determined regionally based on a five-year average review of surveys reported by local school districts. Qualifying teachers will be eligible for up to five years, and the number of participating teachers in any given year is capped at 1,000. If a participating teacher’s tax credit goes unused, it may be carried forward to the teacher’s next three years of tax liability. The Governor’s Office of Students Achievement (GOSA) is tasked with annually evaluating the program.
SB 47 by Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega) expands Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program to public school students with Section 504 plans and who are diagnosed with at least one of 21 medical conditions specified in the bill, including autism, emotional or behavioral disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Currently this private school voucher program is open to students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Throughout the legislative session, PAGE expressed serious concern to policymakers because SB 47 requires families accepting the voucher to waive their legal right to the educational services outlined in students’ 504 plans as well as IEPs.
Voucher amounts are calculated based on the portion of state funding allotted for participating students in addition to the cost of services specified in IEPs if applicable. In addition to private school tuition, the vouchers can also be used to fund fees associated with physical, speech, or occupational therapy, private school uniforms, school transportation, meals, summer school, and tutoring.
SB 47 waives the voucher’s public school attendance eligibility requirement for students who have a parent on active military duty, have been adopted or are in foster care, have previously received a special needs voucher, or applied for a voucher in the 2021-2022 school year and were enrolled in a public school in Georgia during a period when student enrollment was counted in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school years. The Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) will adopt rules regarding student eligibility for the voucher program and conduct an annual survey of participating parents’ satisfaction.
Paid Parental Leave for Georgia Educators
HB 146 sponsored by Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) grants up to 120 hours of paid parental leave to full-time employees of local boards of education, if they have been employed for at least six months. Employees qualify for the leave due to birth of a child, adoption of a child, or becoming a foster parent. Local school districts must create policies incorporating the bill’s requirements, and such policies can require that leave provided under HB 146 run concurrently with leave required under federal law. Unused parental leave will have no transferable value upon employee separation. No state appropriation is attached to HB 146 to fund the requirement of local school districts or state agencies.
SB 59 by Sen. John Albers. (R-Roswell) provides additional funding to local charter schools and allows educators employed by charter schools to participate in the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP). Regarding charter school use of facilities owned by local boards of education, SB 59 allows for negotiation between the two entities. A last-minute addition to the legislation also makes provisions related to Georgia’s Early Intervention Program (EIP) non-waivable under charter district and strategic waiver contracts. Inflexibility regarding EIP services may impact how local school districts provide those services to elementary students.
SB 153 by Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming) pertains to three regional charter high schools which serve at-risk students and specialize in credit recovery, making the SBOE the charter authorizer of the schools. The legislation also changes the funding mechanism of the special charter schools.
Other Education Bills
HB 287 by Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) includes tobacco, vapor products, and human trafficking in annually required drug and alcohol courses for K-12 students.
HB 606 by Rep. Randy Nix (R-LaGrange) adds the Georgia Independent Schools Association to the list of approved school accrediting agencies.
SB 20 by Sen. Chuck Payne (R-Dalton), the new chair of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, seeks to expand Georgia’s Child Advocate Advisory Committee by three members, including a foster parent, a former foster child, and a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
SB 42 by Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga), also known as the “Dexter Mosely Act,” allows home school students in grades 6-12 to participate in extracurricular or interscholastic activities at the public schools for which they are zoned. Eligible home school students must enroll in at least one course at their local schools. The legislation also requires local school districts to annually report student discipline data in a prominent location on their websites and furnish a print copy of such data to any requester at no charge. SB 42 underwent significant changes during the 2021 legislative session. As it was originally introduced, the legislation sought to untether student discipline data from Georgia’s school climate rating system. That provision was deleted, and the discipline posting requirement and Dexter Mosely Act added, as the bill moved through the legislative process.
SB 66 by Sen. Jason Anavitarte (R-Dallas) merges the Georgia Foundation for Public Education and the Public Education Innovation Fund Foundation.
SB 159, also by Sen. Gooch, allows local school districts to transport students using vehicles with eight or fewer seats.
SB 204 by Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta) creates a pilot program to assist individuals age 16 and older who left high school before graduating, or who want to do so, in earning a high school diploma from a technical college.
SB 246 by Sen. Matt Brass (R-Newnan) limits state regulation of student learning pods, which the legislation defines as parents voluntarily grouping children together to participate in or enhance remote learning options offered by their primary education program.
TRS Return to Work Bill on Track to Pass in 2022
Retirement legislation with a fiscal impact on the retirement system it seeks to change is required to undergo a two-year legislative process. As a fiscal retirement bill, HB 385 by Rep. Shaw Blackmon (R-Bonaire) is eligible to pass during the 2022 session, after the House Retirement Committee voted to send it for summer actuarial study, a required step in its advancement. The bill allows retired educators to return to work full-time after a 12-month waiting period following retirement while continuing to draw full Teacher Retirement System (TRS) benefits. Employment is restricted to high-needs areas as determined by Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs).
Education-Related Study Committees
SR 192, also by Chairman Payne, creates the Senate Age of Mandatory Education Study Committee, designed to study the issue of Georgia’s compulsory school attendance.
Mixed Budget Outcomes for Fiscal Year 2022 – Federal Bailout Impacts State Legislative Funding Decisions
Budget news from the Gold Dome is mixed: A portion of funding was returned to critical education programs, but fiscal challenges persist in some areas. A welcome highlight is restoration of $567 million from the nearly $1 billion that was initially cut from the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula in the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021) budget when the pandemic hit. Funds are partially restored to some of the other programs operated by GaDOE, which were also downsized due to the pandemic. This money is added back in the Amended Fiscal Year 2021 (AFY 2021) budget and continues in the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY 2022) budget. Gaps remain with an ongoing austerity cut of about $383 million and longstanding state funding shortages for student transportation and school counselors. Highlights from the AFY 2021 and FY 2022 budgets include:
AFY 2021 (July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021)
$567 million partial restoration of the $952 million initially cut from the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula in the FY 2021 budget. This leaves districts short $383 million in state funding.
Partial restoration of state funds cut from other GaDOE education programs including: Agricultural Education, Communities in Schools, Curriculum Development, GNETS, Non-Quality Basic Education Grants (grant for feminine hygiene products), RESAs, State Schools, Technology/Career Education, and Tuition for Multiple Disability Students.
More than $40 million added to buy 520 new school buses, significant progress in removing old buses still in use due to declining state funding for bus replacement.
One-time bonuses of $1,000 for state employees earning less than $80,000 annually.
The AFY 2021 budget also includes $20 million to create a broadband infrastructure grant program for rural communities.
Kemp and State Superintendent Richard Woods collaborated to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to provide school-based educators and support staff a one-time supplement of $1,000. The supplements are to be distributed by the end of FY 2021. Because the salary supplements are funded through the use of federal dollars, they are not listed in the state’s budget.
Fiscal Year 2022 (July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022)
$567 million partial restoration of the $952 million initially cut from the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula in the FY 2021 budget. Districts are down about $383 million in state funding for the upcoming school year.
Partial restoration of state funds cut from other GaDOE programs including: Agricultural Education, Communities in Schools, GNETS, grants for feminine hygiene products, Regional Education Service Agencies, State Schools, Technology/Career Education, and Tuition for Multiple Disability Students.
Boost in funding for the Teacher Retirement System to reflect an increase in the employer share from 19.06 percent to 19.81 percent.
Funding added for: Law Enforcement Teaching Students (LETS) program, charter facility grants, dyslexia screening and a state dyslexia specialist, computer science grants, a pilot program to provide access to virtual STEM and AP STEM classes in rural districts, grants for feminine hygiene products, school nutrition staff, equalization grants for low-wealth districts, and to administer federally required Milestones exams as well as an AP computer science pilot program.
Funding for most enrollment-driven programs is down in the FY 2022 budget in part due to a decline in student enrollment. There are about 33,000 fewer students currently enrolled in public schools than in the previous year. Budget writers indicated that funding could be adjusted during the 2022 legislative session if enrollment goes back up.
Outside of funding for GaDOE, the FY 2022 budget includes $2 million to expand the Apex program, which districts can tap for mental health services, and funds for a youth suicide prevention specialist. It also adds $10 million for the broadband infrastructure grant program, and boosts funding for pre-kindergarten classroom operations by $1.7 million.
Lawmakers noted additional dollars school districts receive through three federal COVID-19 relief packages: the CARES Act, the CARES 2 Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act. In total, Georgia’s school districts will receive nearly $6 billion to help cover the high cost of opening school buildings while reducing the risk of virus transmission. The funds are also intended to help districts address the harmful effects of the pandemic on students including lost learning time and services and climbing mental health needs. The funds are distributed based on districts’ Title I allocations. Districts with high portions of low-income students will receive more than those with small portions. Districts with fewer poor students may not receive enough in federal relief money to cover the state austerity cut.
The federal funds must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024. This limited duration makes it difficult to use the money to hire more school counselors, where there is a longstanding state funding gap, add teachers to early grades to reduce class size, bring on more reading specialists, or hire other skilled practitioners to support students. Nor are they a sustainable solution to persistent state funding challenges including significant underfunding of student transportation, inadequate and stagnant funds for substitute teachers, and the elimination of state funds for health insurance for non-certified district staff such as bus drivers.
Though temporary, districts have significant flexibility in using federal COVID-19 relief money. Possible uses include community schools that provide wraparound services, teacher retention strategies, extended learning time (e.g., summer and after school programs), and more. Districts must use 20 percent of funds to address student learning loss.
Education Bills that Did Not Pass in 2021
An important aspect of each legislative session is the bills lawmakers do not approve. Because 2021 is the first year of Georgia’s legislative biennium, these bills can move forward during the 2022 session, which convenes in January. Private school vouchers remained the preeminent education policy issue during the 2021 legislative session. Though lawmakers voted to expand the special needs voucher program, a push to create an expensive new voucher program failed. An attempt to raise the cap on Georgia’s existing tuition tax credit voucher program, which diverts $100 million annually from state services to private schools, also failed.
The following bills failed to clear both chambers.
HB 60 by Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock), a PAGE-opposed bill, that would create Georgia’s third voucher program, a new type of voucher called education savings account (ESAs). The personal accounts for voucher students would be funded with an estimated $422 million in state funds intended for public schools. Families participating in the program would be able to use the accounts for private school tuition and other educational services. More information on HB 60 is available here. The bill did not receive a vote prior to Crossover Day. PAGE and other education advocates anticipate lawmakers who support vouchers will continue to push for the creation of ESA vouchers.
HB 142 by Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton), which is also opposed by PAGE, would boost the cap on the tax credit voucher program to $150 million annually, an addition of $50 million from the current level. The House Ways and Means Committee did not take a vote on the bill in 2021. More information on HB 142 is available here.
Voucher proponents attempted to add overdue financial and operational transparency requirements to the state’s tax credit voucher program with HB 517 by Rep. John Carson (R-Marietta). The bill did not include provisions to increase accountability and oversight of the academic performance of students who receive the vouchers.
Media Center Obscene Materials
SB 226 by Sen. Jason Anivitarte (R-Dallas) would require school districts to adopt policies providing for a complaint resolution process to address school media material, including books and movies, that objecting parents find obscene.
Other Education-Related Bills that Did Not Pass
HB 276 by Rep. Phillip Singleton (R-Sharpsburg) would make it unlawful for public or private schools, both K-12 and postsecondary, whose students compete against public schools, to allow transgender female athletes to participate in athletic programs designated for females. More information on HB 276 is available here.
HB 589 by Rep. Matthew Gambill (R-Cartersville), named “The Georgia Civics Renewal Act,” would create a commission to review and make recommendations on civics education in the state.
HB 681 by Rep. Bill Yearta (R-Sylvester) originally would require a personal finance course in high school to provide instruction regarding opening a checking account, balancing that account, managing debt, computing taxes, and other financial management skills. Later in the session, the original language of the bill was stripped by the Senate and replaced with language from another bill. Neither version of HB 681 was successful.
SB 3 by Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) would raise the compulsory attendance age for students from 16 to 17.
SB 106 by Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) would require schools to provide wraparound services to students in Pre-K to third grade before expelling or suspending those students for more than five days. The bill’s mandate was a discretionary requirement before it passed the committee, though the legislation was ultimately unsuccessful.
SB 220 by Sen. Chuck Payne (R-Dalton), the Senate version of "The Georgia Civics Renewal Act," would have created a commission to oversee Georgia civics education.
SB 240 by Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Atlanta) would create a new, voluntary instructional program on elections for 11th- and 12th-grade students.