Classes for Georgia public schools are beginning soon, and school systems have been busy molding policy from a raft of education laws passed by the General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp in the last legislative session.
Walker County Schools starts Thursday, followed by Dade County the next day and Catoosa County on Aug. 8.
Superintendents say new education laws formalize processes already in place, but a teacher's advocacy group believes some of the new legislation could remove layers of decision-making that allowed more community input.
Many of the laws passed don't take effect until later in the year, but in place for this school year are House Bill 1084, which bars schools from teaching divisive concepts like one race is superior to another, the United States is racist or any race is inherently racist; and House Bill 1178, the Parents Bill of Rights, which gives parents the right to review curriculums, among other things.
The education bills signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on April 28 also make school board meetings more transparent, improve civic education and financial literacy, increase tax credits for scholarships and allow retired teachers to return to the classroom in high-need areas. Senate Bill 226, designed to target school materials harmful to minors, goes into effect Jan. 1.
Educators are concerned about the implementation of some of these bills, according to Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an advocacy organization.
Schools have always had a process for challenging a library book that sent complaints to be heard by a library media committee, she said. The new law gives that authority to school principals, Morgan said in a phone interview, and the text of the law confirms that. HB 1084 and HB 1178 also give more decision-making power to school principals, she said.
"The new law is taking that (library media) committee out of the picture and putting sole decision-making in the hands of an administrator," Morgan said. "The so-called parent bill of rights, dealing with curriculum materials, again puts the power in the hand of the administrator — and the divisive concepts (law), it's all going to an administrator to be the sole decision maker."
School districts could still have intermediary steps that include public processes like a library media committee, Morgan said, but the law says that principals make the final decision. School administrators are subject to public pressure driven by the media, Morgan said, and decisions could be made "not based on soundness of instructional practice or the appropriateness of material for the age group, but on concern about outside coverage."
Morgan said the only thing she sees as divisive is the new education laws. What should be a partnership between parents and administrators is becoming "adversarial," she said, and that won't help improve things for students. Some online parent advocacy websites have lists of library books to challenge, but Morgan said she hopes parents don't challenge these books without doing their own research on the books in question.
The Walker County Board of Education voted Monday to approve policies implementing the divisive concepts law and the Parents Bill of Rights — the final step of a process that began in June, Superintendent Damon Raines said in a phone interview.
School boards first receive sample policies from state organizations, he said, and then the board writes policies with input from the board's lawyers that are in line with the law but also have the character of Walker County, he said. There's also a 30-day period in the process during which the board accepts comments from the public.
Several parts of the Parents Bill of Rights were already policy in Walker County, Raines said, but the legislation added a formal allowance for parents to review instructional material.
But he added, "That was already something parents could do."
All the new policies — a complaint resolution process, contact to file a complaint and a resolution timeline — will be posted on the district's website Monday, along with updates to the school system's safety plan and COVID-19 policy, in preparation for the first day of school on Thursday.
"So we have a lot of things we're going to be putting on our website," Raines said. "Our goal is to have great relationships with our parents, and we've very transparent about what we're doing and what we're trying to accomplish, and so we encourage parents to come talk to us."
Cole Muzio — president of Frontline Policy Action, an organization that bills itself as "dedicated to forging public policy and electing champions for our conservative family values" — said by email that the education laws passed by Kemp and the General Assembly bolstered parent confidence.
"Great steps have been taken to rid schools of politics, take out indoctrination and obscenity and recognize the authority of parents," Muzio said. "We are hearing positive feedback from parents and are confident in our state's continued efforts to value teachers, respect parents, put students first and reject the divisive education agenda of the radical left."
Chance Nix, superintendent of Catoosa County Public Schools, said the new laws mostly codify existing practices in the district, and the district is enacting policies to reflect that.
"While the policies formalize the new legislation, the district has already been operating under these guidelines," Nix said.
The new policies being addressed by the school board add a new process and timeline for resolving complaints.
"As always, our school principals will continue to welcome input from parents and stakeholders," he said by email. "Parents may also email me directly by visiting our website and clicking on 'Connect with Chance.'"
Josh Ingle, superintendent of Dade County Schools, said his administration is open to the concerns of parents, but there haven't been many issues in their community.
"We already had processes in place, so the new laws didn't change much," Ingle said in a phone interview.
School safety is the hot topic of the academic year, Ingle said, and Dade County Schools has had school resource officers at all four campuses for several years. The next step, he said, is to ensure main entrance access control and install door prop alarms at all the county's schools.