ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp has promised Georgia public school teachers another $2,000 in pay raises, after the legislature provided funding for $3,000 last year.
But even the strongest advocates of raises say they may not happen this year, in part because of flagging tax revenues that led the Republican to order budget cuts.
"It may not come this year," said Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "It may come next year. But I'm hopeful he will live up to his word and give at least $1,000 or more this year."
Kemp has said he stands by his promise, but won't say whether he'll push for any money this year. The remaining $2,000 could cost $325 million. Observers say that it's possible that lawmakers could still give the $1,000 Booker referenced, in part because they are up for re-election.
So far, core K-12 and college spending has been shielded from cuts that Kemp has ordered, but that could change if revenues fall more or lawmakers further reduce Georgia's top state income tax rate. They already lowered it from 6% to 5.75%, and the rate could be reduced to 5.5% this year.
Cuts could mean a return of teacher layoffs and unpaid furloughs that lingered for years after the great recession. They could also cause tuition increases at public universities and colleges.
"We would like additional pay raises every year, but we also think it's important that legislators enact financial policies that protect the long-term viability of our schools," said Margaret Ciccarrelli of Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teachers' group.
The budget situation could also jeopardize proposals for more funding for school buses and counselors. But here are other issues lawmakers could consider:
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has championed a proposal to use public money to send students to private schools, called education scholarship accounts. Last year's effort, which failed in the state Senate, would have allowed parents to spend up to $5,500 on tuition or other educational costs. Parents would have to educate children in private schools or at home.
The program was projected to cost about $50 million in its first year. That would be in addition to $100 million in tax credits that Georgia gives to donors to private school scholarship organizations, plus $29 million Georgia spends on private school payments for special education students.
"Educational savings accounts have expanded ... options in other states, and it's something I believe we should continue to pursue in Georgia," Duncan said in an emailed statement.
Democrats and some Republicans have opposed the bill.
"I expect the lieutenant governor to give it his best shot," said Angela Palm of the Georgia School Boards Association. "I don't know that they have the Senate votes and I see no evidence that the House side is ready to do that either."
Georgia's system of grading schools, once backed by the GOP, has come under heavy fire from Kemp and fellow Republican Richard Woods, the state schools superintendent.
State law currently mandates a 100-point scale, based mostly on standardized test scores, called the College and Career Ready Performance Index. The Governor's Office of Student Achievement then assigns A-to-F grades using the scale, although that's not mandated by law. Few Georgia school districts earn As.
"We feel, and many of our educators feel, that the A-to-F grades more closely track student poverty and highlight the needs for additional resources," Ciccarrelli said.
Palm said Kemp may stop issuing letter grades, and lawmakers could mandate changes to the index
Kemp and others say the growth of dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to take college courses, is "unsustainable."
The number of course hours taken tripled from 2013 to 2017, with much growth concentrated at technical colleges in rural and exurban areas. The state auditor's office found the state spent $172 million on the program in 2018, including almost $79 million on tuition, fees and books, and almost $94 million on funding to universities and colleges based on enrollment. The auditor also found high schools got $27 million in payments in the public school funding formula.
Kemp has said he believes some students are "gaming" the program, and observers expect limits on which classes students can take and how many classes they can take
School and teacher groups are still playing defense against possible cuts or restructuring for the Teachers Retirement System, which pays pensions to school employees.
"We think that's an important incentive and we encourage them to continue to make sure it's robust for years to come," Ciccarelli said.
Ciccarelli said PAGE has had "favorable indications" from Kemp that he won't support pension changes, and Palm noted such changes could be unpopular in an election year. Lawmakers could consider a dispute over whether the University System of Georgia is behind on pension payments. They could also let teachers return to the classroom while still collecting pensions, to ease teacher shortages.