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Editorial: Schools are key Capitol project for state lawmakers
Next year's governors race looming over legislature session
BC-GA-XGR--Georgia Legislature2-ref
The 2017 session of the Georgia General Assembly will be gaveled into session Monday at the state Capitol in Atlanta.

When the gavel drops to bang in the 2017 Georgia General Assembly on Monday morning, that loud crack echoing through the chambers might sound like a starting gun.

This year’s 40-day session, though not itself in an election year, will likely launch the horse race for governor in 2018, Gov. Nathan Deal’s final year in office.

No one has yet entered that race, but many are fingering the brim of their hats and could be ready to toss them by the session’s end in the spring. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, like Deal a Hall Countian, may head a list of a half dozen or more legislative leaders jonesing to move to the big house on West Paces Ferry two years from now. That same number may be lining up to seek Cagle’s job as the state’s No. 2 officer. So with that in mind, let the posturing begin.

This year’s legislative session could in some ways mimic a bride’s wedding attire: Something old, new and borrowed (minus the “blue;” sorry, Democrats, this is still a red state and few of your ideas are likely to get through).

The old might be the resurrected bills from last year’s session that Deal vetoed, much to the chagrin of some Republicans: Religious liberty, an idea “borrowed” from other states, and allowing firearms on college campuses. In both cases, the governor weighed the potential downsides of each law, acknowledged concerns from business and college leaders, and chose the wise — one might say “conservative” — path by shelving them.

GOP leaders don’t seem too eager to give the religious liberty bill much time and effort, perhaps due to the political fallout seen last year in North Carolina, which lost the NBA All-Star Game and a number of other events and business ventures over its transgender bathroom bill. Or perhaps last year’s effort was aimed at earning votes in an election year. This year, the gun bill might have a better chance to make it back to the governor’s desk.

Another something old worth revisiting is expanding the state’s allowances for cannabis oil for medicinal treatment. Use of the drug was legalized two years ago, but lawmakers and the governor balked last year at allowing the growth and manufacture of marijuana plants to produce the oil, which helps treat certain types of seizures and other conditions. Rep. Allen Peake, the bill’s chief proponent and himself perhaps eyeing higher office, won’t back down and will bring it up again.

Something new may be the session’s key focus: Schools. For a change, the topic likely to stir the most debate is also the most crucial.

Last year, legislators approved a constitutional amendment giving the governor power to create a special school district and administrator to address the state’s failing schools, identified by test scores and other metrics. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan in November after a spirited campaign on both sides.

With that concept in the ditch, lawmakers will go back to the drawing board to develop a new plan to help the growing number of struggling schools get back on track, some 153 statewide according to the last count, including some in our area.

We won’t rehash the drawbacks the amendment would have incurred, specifically the creation of a shadow superintendent and education department funded by tax money slotted for failing schools. Now the goal is to devise a plan that gives the governor and the elected superintendent the leeway needed to help local districts target what their schools need most.

In some cases, it’s a simple matter of money. Some rural counties, in particular, don’t have large enough tax bases to generate the necessary revenue. The state’s school funding formula created in the 1980s sought to balance that inequity with extra state dollars, but has never been fully funded. A special commission last year recommended an update for that plan to funnel more tax dollars to the areas that need them most.

At some point, a decision should be made on whether to implement that proposal or find a better one. Either way, any effort at school reform must include a serious financial investment.

The governor doesn’t hesitate to remove district board members who aren’t addressing their schools’ problems effectively. He did this in DeKalb County during his first term and recently in Dooly County, replacing several board members who clearly weren’t acting in the best interests of students and parents.

But that should remain a last-gasp option used only when the board itself is clearly the root of a district’s failure. In the case of individual schools struggling within an otherwise successful district, other solutions such as finances, parental involvement, teacher retention and the like should be the priority.

Many lawmakers want to increase school choice options for parents and allow them to move their children out of failing schools more easily. That’s worth considering, but again caution is warranted. More flexibility for parents is a plus, but any plan that siphons public dollars from a school already in trouble will only leave the rest of its students in worse shape. And any proposal to channel that tax revenue into for-profit charter school companies, many of which lobby lawmakers hard with bags of campaign cash, should be viewed with skepticism.

If fixing the state’s education shortfalls was easy, it would have been done long ago. For decades, every governor from Sanders to Deal, and legislatures led by both parties, have tackled this thorny issue. Innovative reform ideas should be considered and vetted carefully, and for a change include more input from education professionals who work on the front lines and know what is needed most. Perhaps the right mix of carrots and sticks can lead to progress.

And for sure, any state leader who can find that magic bullet might be next in line to become the latest “education governor” when the 2018 election year arrives.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman. 

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