ATLANTA— The day before his State of the State Address, Georgia’s new governor pledged $5,000 raises for each teacher in the state, a fully funded education formula and $30,000 for every school to beef up security measures as administrators see fit.
In an interview with the Marietta Daily Journal at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, Brian Kemp, who was sworn in as the state’s 83rd governor on Monday, talked about his new job and outlined some of his plans for his first 100 days in office.
In addition to creating a task force of prosecutors and investigators aimed at cracking down on street gangs and drug cartels throughout the state, Kemp vowed to follow through on his campaign promise of giving teachers raises, which he said are projected to cost the state an estimated $600 million.
“Forty-four percent of our teachers are leaving the field within the first five years. That’s a huge problem, especially in more rural parts of our state, but it’s a problem (everywhere),” he said, adding his team is budgeting “a historic pay raise for our educators.”
The governor also said he expects the state’s K-12 funding formula to be fully funded for the second consecutive year. The additional $167 million in education funding last year put an end to austerity cuts, giving Cobb County Schools an extra $10 million that the district put toward raises and bonuses.
Kemp said maintaining his commitment to fully funding public education in Georgia is contingent on two things: a strong economy and the Legislature’s ability to budget conservatively.
“It’s easy to spend a lot of money in good times and when you get to tough times you have to start cutting,” Kemp said, calling it a matter of time before the economy slows down again.
“Our plan is to keep fully funding education and work on lowering taxes.”
The governor also announced plans to keep students safer by spending more on school security measures and increasing the number of counselors available in Georgia’s high schools.
“We’re going to have $69 million in one-time funds in the amended budget for our school safety plan,” Kemp said. “It’ll be $30,000 going to each school in the state — 2,294 of them.”
How that money is spent, he said, will be left entirely up to the schools.
“Complete local control on that money so the local school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students can all weigh in and say what’s the best way to secure this school,” Kemp said, suggesting the money could be used to hire additional school resource officers, improve security systems or even install metal detectors if communities deem them necessary.
Boosting the number of counselors in high schools, he said, should help students struggling with mental health issues or addiction.
“We’ve got to deal with the mental health problem that we have in our schools,” he said.
Increasing access to trained professionals who can identify the signs of depression and drug dependence may help curb suicide and overdose rates among Georgia’s youth, Kemp said, and pairing the counseling with the enhanced security may prevent mass shootings in schools.
“The reason for going after the mental health and doing the counselors is because the majority of school shootings happen by someone who is in the school and they have the right to be there,” Kemp said. “It’s a student.”
He said giving students who need it additional access to counseling or psychological treatment is not a partisan issue, but something both Republicans and Democrats should get behind.
“We’re being as fair as you can be, giving complete local control. It doesn’t matter if it’s downtown Atlanta or down in southwest Georgia or anywhere in between,” he said. “They’re all getting the same money and they can do with it as they please.”
The governor said while he favors the expansion of school choice initiatives such as vouchers, charter schools and tax credit scholarships for private schools, he fully supports K-12 public education.
"I'm a strong supporter of school choice. On the vouchers, I think if you have failing schools that needs to be an option for those areas because they have no others," Kemp said. "I've been a strong supporter of charter schools ... but it doesn't mean that I won't 100 percent support public education, which I think we absolutely need to do."
‘TOO MANY STANDARDIZED TESTS’
The new governor also made it clear that he believes the number of standardized tests students are forced to take each year hinders the ability of teachers to do what they do best — teach.
“We have too many standardized tests,” Kemp said. “I want to free them up from some of this testing … One issue I’ve heard from parents and teachers alike is that we are spending more time teaching to the test than we are teaching our children. I don’t think it’s been beneficial.”
Both the Cobb County School District and Marietta City Schools have taken efforts to do away with the annual state-mandated Milestones tests, pushing instead for their own methods of measuring student achievement that they argue won’t be nearly as time-consuming.
Kemp says he’s open to the idea of approving waivers for districts who pitch alternatives to the state tests but says there must be a way to hold teachers and students accountable without “tying their hands.”
“We have to trust people at the local level to teach the children in their community,” he said. “If they’re not, people are not going to live there. They’re going to move, they’re going to send their kids to other schools and they’ll vote with their feet.”
Kemp didn’t hesitate to wade into the school calendar debate either, saying he campaigned on being “a local control guy.”
An 11-member Senate Study Committee made up four Republican state senators and members of the state’s travel and tourism industries recently recommended the Legislature put in place “guard rails” lengthening Georgia summers by requiring that school districts start class later in the year.
Recommendations included mandating that public schools start within seven to 10 days before the first Monday in September, with an end date on or around June 1.
The committee heard from the Atlanta Braves as well as top executives from Six Flags Over Georgia, Callaway Resort and Gardens, and Stone Mountain Park, who all pushed for later summers, citing the importance student labor has on Georgia’s tourism industry as well as the impact a summer job has on youth development.
But board members from Cobb and Marietta included in this year’s legislative priorities a request to maintain control over their calendars. And teachers and families from both districts have grown used to the six weeks of breaks the existing school schedules afford them.
“I think there are a lot of good arguments for letting the locals decide their own calendar,” Kemp said, citing the Richmond County School System’s tradition of blocking out the entire week of the Masters when the tournament is played in Augusta each spring.
That said, Kemp called it “crazy” that some systems start at the end of July or the very beginning of August.
“But if folks don’t like that they can run for their local school board,” he said.
Kemp expects to dive deeper into his plans for the 2019 legislative session during his inaugural State of the State address on Thursday.
See Sunday’s MDJ to read more about what Kemp had to say in a Q&A.