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State & Regional Govt & Politics
School safety, funding, weapons on agenda in Legislature
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School safety, funding, weapons on agenda in Legislature

School safety, funding, weapons on agenda in Legislature
Fifth-graders Maggie Graham, Jake Hodgson and Christian Lee (from left) rehearse “The Pirates of Penzance Jr.” at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. One legislator wants to double the private school tuition tax credit program.

School safety, funding, weapons on agenda in Legislature

THE ISSUES

School funding is always an important topic, as school districts grapple with their own tight budgets. There will likely be a push to give schools and districts more flexibility while demanding more accountability in the form of a new rating system for schools. There could be a push to double the size of a tax credit program set up to benefit Georgians who donate to student scholarship organizations that support private schools. Some $50 million in tax credits has been set aside for donors to such organizations. Opponents of the program, who say it offers a backdoor way for public funds to be used in private schools, are bracing for a push to double the amount of money set aside in tax credits to $100 million. School safety could get a push in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. And parents could be given the right to demand that their local school district consider changing their traditional public school into a charter school.

THE PLAYERS

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, and Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, the chairmen of the Education committees in the Senate and House. They’ll determine what education bills get heard — and which quietly go away. Coleman said he’s most interested in giving schools flexibility. Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, is sponsoring the charter school bill, and Coleman said it will be given a hearing. Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, backs allowing one or more school administrators to carry a weapon to a school or a school function. The Georgia Department of Education will pay close attention, particularly if efforts gain traction to pull Georgia out of a common core of academic standards shared by many other states.

Following last year’s fight over a charter school amendment to the state constitution, school choice was expected to return this year as a primary issue on the General Assembly’s education agenda.

Now, in response to last month’s fatal shootings of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., school safety has also risen as a top concern for the legislative session that begins Monday.

It’s hard to predict what can happen in a 40-day session, but other education issues that could draw attention this year include school funding, which has taken a significant hit since the recession began in 2008, and the potential expansion of a program that helps provide assistance to students entering private schools.

But school safety is now the hot issue, with legislation now being prepared by state Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, that would allow one or more administrators to carry a weapon at school, at a school function or on a bus.

Battles’ legislation is a response to last month’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which launched discussions across the country about how to improve safety in schools. Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, called for armed officers in every school in the country.

Battles doesn’t go that far in his proposal. It would allows schools to choose whether they want to allow armed administrators in schools and at school functions. It would require peace officer training for anyone chosen to carry a weapon.

The idea of armed officers in schools has broad support.

“We do support additional school resource officers in our schools,” said Tim Callahan, director of public relations for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “They are a plus and, in conjunction with strong school safety plans, provide a first line of defense.”

Districts are already wrestling with how to improve security.

For example, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office has beefed up its presence at schools in the county. Cherokee Schools Superintendent Frank Petruzielo told school board members earlier this month that he has formed a committee to examine safety protocols in the district’s schools.

Many high and middle schools already have armed resource officers, but adding them to more schools could be costly.

Georgia Superintendent John Barge said he likes the idea of having an armed resource officer at every school. But in stressing that he does not endorse the NRA’s position, Barge has raised questions about the cost of having an armed resource officer at every school.

Local school districts, already facing tight budgets, would have to get help from the state to add resource officers, Barge said.

While the climate seems hospitable for the passage of legislation crafted to improve school safety, key legislators such as Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Education and Youth Committee, and Rep. Brooks Coleman, the Duluth Republican who is Millar’s counterpart in the House, both said they don’t want to offer knee-jerk reaction to the Newtown shootings.

“We’re not going to overreact,” Coleman said.

In addition to school safety, issues such as school funding and flexibility will take up time and attention this session.

Public school districts in Georgia received about $7 billion in state funding during each of the past two fiscal years, and Coleman said he expects that level to be maintained.

Per-pupil state spending in 2012 was down 11.5 percent from 2008 levels, and educators said they are still feeling that pinch.

“While things are slowly improving, schools are still challenged to do more with less,” Callahan said.

The state’s tight budget — there are concerns that earlier revenue estimates could be off and state agencies would have to make bigger cuts than anticipated — could boost efforts to oppose the expansion of a state tax credit program crafted to help those who donate to student scholarship organizations, or SSOs, which direct assistance to private schools.

Georgia has set aside $50 million in tax credits for those who donate to SSOs. Opponents of the tax credit program have complained that it is a backdoor way for private schools to benefit from public funds. Some private schools, opponents have pointed out, are encouraging people to direct their donations to specific students and claiming a tax credit, a practice that is prohibited.

Opponents expect some effort to be made to double the size of the program from $50 million to $100 million, but no legislation to accomplish that goal has been filed.

One bill that is all but certain to be filed is Rep. Edward Lindsey’s charter school legislation.

Lindsey’s bill would give parents the ability to demand that their local school board consider a petition to turn their traditional public school into a charter school.

If a majority of a school’s households sign a petition requesting that their traditional public school become a charter school, the local school board would be required to consider that request, said Lindsey, the House majority whip.

Such “parent trigger” laws have been enacted in other states. Here, it could stoke embers from last year’s fiery political battle over the constitutional ballot initiative on charter schools.

Georgia voters passed the initiative, despite complaints from opponents who saw it as a costly usurpation of local authority over schools.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who fought the charter initiative, said Lindsey’s legislation would be another step in the wrong direction, opening the door wider to for-profit charter school operators.

“It’s not really a parent trigger,” Fort said. “They’re pulling the trigger on public education.”

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