Education takes an unusually long back seat in Georgia’s election

Like schools across the country, those in Georgia face big decisions in the years to come.

But polls show K-12 education is falling below voter concerns this year, and candidates are spending more time talking about inflation, the economy, abortion and guns.

When it comes to educational issues, Missy Purcell, a Gwinnett County parent and former teacher, says, “I don’t listen much.”

It’s not that incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams don’t have education proposals.

Abrams proposes big hikes in teachers’ salaries, more state-paid preschool places for low-income families, and an increase in college aid funded by legalizing casinos. She also promises efforts to block conservative laws that restrict what schools can teach about race and make it easier for parents to challenge books.

“We must invest in our children from cradle to career and pay our educators a professional wage,” she told Democrats at their state convention in Columbus Aug. 27. “We need to keep our teachers in the classroom, not the courtroom.”

Kemp introduced a more modest agenda, including a scholarship program to help students learn what they’ve been missing out on during the pandemic, encouraging teacher assistants to become full teachers and increasing funding for school counselors.

“We need to do more work to address the learning loss of the pandemic, to get more educators and counselors into our schools, and to protect our students and staff,” Kemp said Monday at a Statham school.

But other concerns seem to be crowding out education, particularly among Democrats.

Katherine Camp, who brought her two children home from Camp Creek Elementary in Lilburn, a suburb of Gwinnett County, said her family moved to the area so her children could attend the highly rated school.

“It’s better than a private school in some ways,” Camp said, noting that her two children receive special education services.

Gwinnett is Georgia’s largest school district with 180,000 students, more than 10% of the state’s enrollment. It’s been a magnet for families, but the district’s direction has been contested in recent years as newly rising Democrats took over the school board and other district offices.

But Camp said her main issues are health care and making sure state laws don’t prevent people from voting. Even their main educational issue, preventing school shootings, revolves mostly around gun control in society.

That’s a decline for what’s traditionally been a key issue, particularly in southern states where literacy lags.

“Not only in Georgia, but throughout the South, individuals take pride in being designated as governors of education,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

In September 2018, in an Atlanta Journal constitutional poll, 16% of Georgians said “public schools” were the most important voting issue that year, tied with health care for second place behind the economy. A Fox News poll conducted this August found that 3% of Georgia registered voters named “education” as their most important issue in the Senate campaign.

“Republicans, what they want to talk about is inflation and the economy,” Bullock said. “Democrats want to talk about failure to expand Medicaid, the abortion decision.”

But Georgia’s next governor and lawmakers will face important decisions, including whether the state should push districts harder to help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, whether the state should rewrite its K-12 funding formula, what Georgia can do to recruit and retain more teachers and how to protect students from shootings.

Georgia is spending more than $25 billion on public schools this year from a $58 billion budget, an indication of how education dominates the state government. Georgia’s 120,000 public school teachers have historically been a key voting bloc. For example, a teachers’ revolt in 2002 helped deny Democrat Roy Barnes a second term after the governor tied teacher ratings and bonuses to student performance and abolished tenure.

Kemp courted teachers in 2018 and promised a $5,000 raise, which Abrams ridiculed as a “gimmick.” Kemp delivered on that promise and also wooed his favor by supporting measures to reduce standardized testing.

But the tone toward education changed in Georgia after Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial win in Virginia highlighted conservative complaints about schooling. That spring, facing a major Republican challenge, Kemp signed a series of culturally conservative school laws that would regulate how race might be taught in schools, make it easier for parents to challenge books they deemed inappropriate, and the state athletic federation to Ban nudged transgender girls out of high school girls’ sport. Youngkin is coming to the campaign trail with Kemp on Tuesday.

These moves make some teachers go nuts. Anthony Downer, a former high school social studies teacher, is the Decatur School District Diversity Coordinator. He is also vice president of Georgia Educators for Equity and Justice, which opposes Georgia’s law banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race.

“Teachers are being targeted,” Downer said. “There are situations where parents are already complaining, community members are already complaining about certain texts that deal with race or sexuality, certain lessons or activities.”

Abrams has proposed increasing the average teacher salary to $75,000 and guaranteeing a starting salary of $50,000. The plan would likely cost $1.65 billion in new spending.

That sounds appealing to Amber Karasik, a special education teacher at Jenkins Elementary School in Gwinnett County and a board member of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators. Karasik echoes Abrams’ arguments that Georgia shouldn’t settle for ranked 21st among states for median wages at $60,553 a year, even though that’s significantly higher than its neighbors.

“We want to keep our best teachers, our best talent, in the state, and for someone considering pursuing a teaching degree, it would probably be appropriate to go elsewhere,” Karasik said.

Kemp does not offer a new salary increase plan. He said in Statham that he “would like to continue paying state employees more,” arguing that teachers should trust him because he made good on his promise of $5,000.

Georgia has largely let its 181 school districts decide how to support students’ academic and social recovery from pandemic-related disruption. Others, however, would like Georgia to better guide districts on effective teaching, citing states like Mississippi where test scores have risen after changes are implemented.

Purcell said that when she briefly returned to teaching after the birth of her children, she felt Gwinnett County had done little to educate her about what had changed during her absence. Their youngest son, Matthew, struggled to read until Gwinnett County paid for him to attend a special school.

“I’d rather have a lot more direction from the state level for districts to use evidence-based programs, especially in our core subjects like literacy and math,” Purcell said. “If we don’t set kids up for success early on, we’re basically handing them a life sentence.”