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some text Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, center, talks to North Georgia supporters Monday afternoon in Chatsworth. U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, left, joined him at the rally as his wife, Marty, applauds, far right.

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State Revenue, year over year

2015: $21.6 billion

2016: $23.5 billion

2017: $24.5 billion

2018*: $25.4 billion

2019*: $26.2 billion

Source: Georgia Budget Policy Institute

*Estimate

 

 

Brian Kemp's promise of an extra $5,000 for every public school teacher in Georgia should be an easy win for educators.

So why hasn't the state's teacher's union backed Kemp, or his plan? Leadership isn't sure he can pull it off. And even if he can, the union head said it wouldn't compensate for his other stances.

"Kemp's offer sounds more like an election year appeasement to educators for votes," Georgia Association of Educators President Charlotte Booker said in a statement Friday.

Kemp's counterpart, Democrat Stacey Abrams, has not made a concrete promise toward teacher pay, instead saying she will "prioritize" their salaries during the budget process. Abrams, who otherwise released a detailed education platform early in her campaign, earned the GAE's endorsement before the May primary.

Georgia Association of Education Leaders Executive Director Jimmy Stokes, meanwhile, was more encouraged by Kemp's promise two weeks ago. He wonders where exactly the money will come from, and whether the pay raise will be sustainable. He also isn't sure Kemp can really find the $600 million necessary to distribute the raises across the state. At the same time, he said, the promise is a step in the right direction.

Stokes hasn't taken a side in the race. He praised Abrams for seeming genuinely interested in increasing teacher salaries.

"Neither one of them are going to be able to put a dollar amount to it and stand behind it until they know what's in the budget, what the revenue estimate is," Stokes said.

When he announced the raise, Kemp cited a 2015 figure from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission: 44 percent of the state's teachers leave the job within five years. He said giving them extra money will help retain the best employees.

Whether he's correct is not clear. After the standards commission reported that 44 percent figure three years ago, the Georgia Department of Education surveyed teachers, asking why so many of their co-workers left the field. The department asked eight questions. More than any other reason, teachers cited an overemphasis on standardized tests.

Low pay was the teachers' fifth reason. At the same time, the author of the study wrote that the rating should be taken with a grain of salt. Money was polarizing. Many teachers listed "pay" as the No. 1 reason why co-workers left the field. On the other end, many teachers also listed that issue as the least important reason.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Georgia's public school teachers made an average of $54,600 during the 2016-17 year. That ranked 24th in the country. (Tennessee's teachers made about $48,500, 40th in the country.)

Earlier this year, researchers at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center tried to put these figures in more precise context. They compared the salaries of average 25-year-old teachers in each state to that of other workers their age in their state. The researchers also factored in the level of education teachers usually obtain before entering a classroom.

According to the study, Georgia teachers make 73 cents on the dollar compared to their counterparts in other fields. This ranked 46th in the nation. (Tennessee teachers made 76 cents on the dollar, ranking 42nd.)

"Teachers are to the point in the state of Georgia that anything would be greatly appreciated," Stokes said.

Booker, meanwhile, said Kemp's promise of a raise does not offset his stance on school choice. Earlier this year, the Georgia legislature passed a bill that increased the total cap on annual tax credits for private school scholarships from $58 million to $100 million.

Public school advocates argue programs like this take money away from their own schools, which are funded based on the number of students enrolled. Also, tax credits take revenue out of the state's overall budget.

On his campaign website, Kemp said he supports doubling the Student Scholarship Organization tax credit. Like many conservatives, he believes increasing competition will incentivise school leaders to perform better.

Countered Booker: "Every tax dollar which goes to this voucher program is diverted from the general state budget and thus represents dollars lost to the funding of public education. Mr. Kemp can't have it both ways."

During a stop in Chatsworth, Georgia, on Monday, Kemp said he can fund the $600 million pay raise while at the same time cutting taxes. He said the money is available through projected revenue growth in Georgia. Over the last five years, the state's revenue has increased annually by an average of $1.2 billion.

"Our policy team that has worked on this is absolutely positive we can do this within the existing budget and revenues," Kemp said.

But a large portion of those increases are tied to programs that continually swell as the state's population grows. Wesley Tharpe, a research director at the Georgia Budget Policy Institute, said increases in student enrollment cause the state to spend an extra $314 million every year on Quality Basic Education, the funding formula for schools.

Though it ranges dramatically from year to year, the state also spends about $93 million extra every year on Medicaid. Last year, the state's expenses on the teacher pension increased $362 million, and spending on university enrollment went up $81 million.

These four expenses account for about two-thirds of the extra money the state gets.

Tharpe criticized Kemp for not laying out a more thorough explanation for how to fund the raises. He believes counting on the revenue increase is not wise.

"The idea that there's $600 million just lying around in the budget each year, without jeopardizing other services, is absurd," he said.

But Kemp said he believes the state can save money on Medicaid spending. On Wednesday, he announced his support for waiver under the Affordable Care Act to create a reinsurance program.

Modeled after programs in other states like Wisconsin, which announced its plan in July, the state government would reimburse insurance programs on unusually high expenses. In theory, this should encourage insurance companies to offer lower premiums, saving residents money and allowing more people to afford insurance.

"Just allow more people to compete," Kemp said. "That's what I do every day in the private sector."

Members of Abrams' team said a promise to decrease spending on Medicaid overall is unrealistic and creates a false choice.

"It's just like the Brian Kemp campaign to try and turn Georgians against one another — this time, by pitting health care access against teacher pay," said Priyanka Mantha, communications director for Abrams' campaign.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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