Teacher pay, school safety among Georgia's key education issues this year

Beverly Hedges, right, tells Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods and fellow education officials on the Jan. 9 tour about the benefits that Jag, a registered therapy dog, has had for students at LaFayette High School, as the pooch looks on. (Staff photo by Myron Madden)

Georgia Education: Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2019

1. New leadership at the Capitol2. Quality early childhood care and education3. Elevating the teaching profession4. School safety5. The state’s funding formula6. Testing7. School choice and school vouchers8. School start date and potentially pushing back summer start dates9. Dual enrollment programs10. Barriers to post-secondary success*Source: Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2019 report, Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education

As Gov.-elect Brian Kemp prepares to take office, a Georgia nonprofit organization has identified school safety, teacher pay, early childhood education and school start dates as among its top 10 issues in education this year.

The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education's annual "Top Ten Issues to Watch" report also analyzed the issues and predicts top legislative priorities.

State leaders and education experts, including state schools Superintendent Richard Woods, teamed up Friday to stress the significance of some of the 10 items, mainly school safety and elevating how teachers are compensated.

"Almost every year out of the Legislature, we hear someone say we need to treat teachers like they're real professionals," said Dana Rickman, vice president of the Georgia Partnership. "We need to get teachers more authority, more control over what they are doing and figure out how do we appropriately compensate them for this."

On the campaign trail, Kemp proposed giving each of Georgia's public school teachers a $5,000 annual raise - a "crucial step to help the state retain more educators," he has said.

Kemp's new leadership and other leadership changes at the state level provide an opportunity to address some of the issues, Rickman said.

Superintendent Woods said the Georgia Department of Education supports Kemp's commitment to teacher raises, but also hopes that the state can develop a long-term plan for recruiting and retaining teachers.

"We've already had some great conversations with Gov.-elect Kemp. I think we are seeing alignment and some great conversations as we look forward. We are exposed here really for Georgia to really make some great advancements in education," Woods said as he addressed media Friday. "We support Gov. Kemp's commitment to teacher raises and we look forward to that. These are the most important people we have, these are the individuals who are with our children day in and day out."

According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Kemp's proposed raise for the 115,000 public school teachers across the state would cost about $575 million annually.

Taking into account the state's obligation to pay a portion of an employee's salary into the Teacher Retirement System, the true cost would be at least $697 million.

"We've never just given teachers a raw dollar raise," said Stephen Owens, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. Therefore there would be a number of things for lawmakers to consider, including school districts' local control, whether or not such raises would be incremental over a number of years or if they would affect the state's salary step plan, he added.

School safety was also a topic that Woods and other education leaders emphasized of the issues listed in the report.

"This is a top priority," Woods said. He praised Kemp's commitment to school safety and said he expected to see a big push for funding from his team and the state general assembly.

"School safety must be proactive and must be a comprehensive approach. Looking at all facets of safety is something we have to do as a state," Woods added.

Shannon Flounnory, executive director of safety and security for Fulton County's 102 schools, said school safety talks shouldn't only include law enforcement, but also student health services, mental health counseling and even weather emergencies, which is the most common emergency Georgia's school districts face.

As for emergency preparedness plans and operations, Flounnory recommends that school districts establish concrete plans with their communities.

"School districts should commission critical stakeholder groups, [consisting] of first responders, parents and other in-field experts, to examine current process and protocols," he said.

Rickman also emphasized that although Georgia has increased funding in recent years, the state is still not transparent about per-pupil funding, something that would be helpful for advocates.

The state's 28 percent of students who live in poverty also have long-term impacts on post-secondary opportunities, and with the increase in dual enrollment programs the state also needs to look at what opportunities can be expanded in those areas, she said.

The Georgia Partnership was founded in 1992 by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Economic Developers Association. It consists of business, education and community members and leads nonpartisan efforts to impact education policies.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.