Gov. Nathan Deal urged state lawmakers to spend this year's legislative session studying sweeping changes to Georgia's public education system, temporarily backing away from contentious proposals to tie teacher pay to student performance and overhaul the state's method for funding schools.
Both efforts are at the core of a report released by Deal's appointed commission studying all aspects of Georgia's education system. The report drew opposition from teachers' organizations and top lawmakers.
Deal said he will delay legislation until the 2017 session, meaning the changes wouldn't go into effect until July of that year if approved by lawmakers.
Instead, he promised a $300 million boost to education spending, money he wants school districts to use for a 3 percent teacher pay raise. He also plans to appoint an advisory panel of teachers to discuss future changes to education.
“The education of Georgia's children is too important to be held hostage to a status quo that may feel comfortable to certain adults but is a disservice to our students,” Deal said in his State of the State address on Wednesday. “The method whereby we educate our children must be as modern and adaptive to the changes in the world as our cellphones, our computers, our televisions and our automobiles.”
Deal, a Republican in the second year of his final four-year term, appointed the education commission last year. Its' recommendations would overhaul Georgia's existing formula for doling out money to schools and allocate money per student, factoring in poverty, grade level and enrollment in gifted or special education classes.
The group also advocated for more flexibility on testing, more support to charter schools and letting students advance grade levels when ready.
Deal said he does plan to use this year's budget process to enact some of the group's recommendations, including $26.2 million for pre-K teachers' salary increases and an additional $7.9 million for a 3 percent merit pay increase.
“I think (Deal’s) legacy … a lot of it will have to do with criminal justice reform and k-12 education,” state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said.
Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said Deal made it clear that education reform is his No. 1 priority for 2016, and he supports the governor’s plan to increase pay for teachers.
“It was probably the best speech I’ve heard Gov. Deal give in terms of state of the state,” Rogers said. “I think he did a good job. I could tell he wrote a lot of that.”
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said he was happy to see Deal continue his commitment to improving Georgia’s technical college system.
Lanier Tech is likely to get funding this year for its planned relocation to a site off Ga. 365 at Howard Road in North Hall.
“I’ve always been a big supporter of (technical schools),” Hawkins said. “Not every kid is bound for (liberal arts) college.”
Deal told reporters he hopes teachers now have time to learn more about what’s proposed.
“I think the trouble that has been occurring now is that very few people have actually read the details of the report's recommendations,” Deal told reporters after his speech. “So I want teachers to have a chance to do that and do so with an open mind and see that it is not something designed to punish them but is in fact designed to help them.”
House Speaker David Ralston, who has spoken against the commission's proposal moving K-8 teachers to a pay scale based on student performance, called the governor's delay "wise."
“I think education is too important for us to have a debate that could become contentious," Ralston said. “I think the steps he's taken are designed to avoid that and I applaud him for that."
The recommendation on teacher pay also struck a nerve with educator groups. They argue that linking pay to student performance on standardized tests and other measures is unfair and won't be an incentive to teachers.
Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said the slowdown will let teachers examine the issues and weigh in.
“The bad news is still wanting it; the good news is he's slowing down,” Chapman said.
In the Democrats' response, state Sen. Vincent Fort said changes to funding and teacher pay could cause more harm to schools still recovering from budget cuts during the Great Recession.
"With the Republican leadership failing to hold up its end of the bargain, less than half of our students demonstrate proficiency in reading, social studies, science, and math," Fort said. "Our kids' SAT scores are among the worst in the nation. And why should this surprise us when, adjusted for inflation, teachers are making less money now than they were a decade ago, leading to high turnover."
While education is always a focus for lawmakers, Hawkins said, he also believes Deal will support new legislation to assist disabled persons.
“There are so many small moving parts … I think he hit upon the things I’ve always focused on,” Hawkins added. “It’s right in his crosshairs.”
And Miller, who is a top floor leader pushing Deal’s agenda, said Wednesday’s speech also highlighted how well the state economy has performed in the last few years.
“We have turned the state’s economy around and cut unemployment in half,” he said.
But improving state revenues can be a double-edged sword.
For Rep. Emory Dunahoo, the success of the state economy in the last year or two has changed his focus on the budget.
“There’s two sides to all of this,” he said. “To me, an increase is an increase. That’s the only negative part of it. I believe it’s time to start cutting stuff again.”
State Republicans have rallied around calls to lower personal income taxes and offset that lost revenue with increases in the sales tax.
This could be one way to draw down the size of the budget.
But Dunahoo said he is skeptical that lawmakers will get around to this legislation in 2016.
“I think we probably won’t,” he added.