If he’s re-elected this November, Gov. Brian Kemp said he’ll push for a state budget with $65 million dedicated to fighting pandemic learning loss, hiring new guidance counselors and recruiting teachers.
In a Monday speech outlining his top education priorities for next year’s legislative session, Kemp said he will aim to increase the number of counselors treating students’ mental health issues.
“In speaking with school administrators, teachers and staff, one of the top concerns I consistently hear is the mental health needs of our students. While we have made key investments in this vital effort over my first term, we can and must do more,” Kemp said in remarks at Statham’s Dove Creek Elementary. “Counselors in schools across our state today do much more than just assist students with issues they may be facing psychologically. They are undeniably a critical asset to the overall health, well being and long-term success of our future leaders.”
In 2020 and 2021, Georgia schools provided one counselor for every 419 students, according to the American School Counselor Association. That’s close to the national average of 415 students per counselor, but a far sight off from the recommended 250 students per counselor.
An extra $25 million could help to close that gap, said Stephen Owens, education policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“I think that’s a great, I would say, first step, because the pandemic specifically highlighted that we can’t just educate kids’ brains if they’re dealing with mental health issues, if their bodies aren’t taken care of,” he said. “It showed just how much we need that social-emotional learning, mental health professionals. I’m never going to complain about $25 million dollars being added into the budget for school counselors, but hopefully, that isn’t treated as the job is completely finished.”
Kemp’s K-12 budget proposal also includes a $15 million grant designed to help recruit paraprofessionals, workers who assist teachers in the classroom and otherwise help students in a variety of ways, advance to become full-time teachers.
“We currently have more than 9,000 paraprofessionals with four-year degrees working in our schools, but the cost and length of time required for these hard-working Georgians to become certified educators is a major obstacle for many,” he said. “To help these parapros offset their significant certification costs, my budget proposal for next year will include $15 million for a $3,000 reimbursable grant program. These funds will help get more teachers in the classroom, and assist Georgians already passionate about (helping) our students achieve career success.”
Owens applauded the idea.
“I think it’s a good read that there are financial barriers to keep from people being in the classroom in a paraprofessional role,” he said. “And when you consider just how helpful parapros can be as a way to rethink the teacher pipeline, these are folks in the classroom, if they can be set up that way, kind of in a grow-your-own program, to become teachers, that just makes everything better because they know the context. They live in the communities. We don’t have to maybe set up tax credits to get folks from UGA to move down to rural Georgia, maybe we could invest in the people who are already there in the classroom.”
Kemp cited state data showing the number of third graders reading on grade level dropped to 63% from 73% from 2019 to 2022, which he said was the result of pandemic learning loss, and said he will direct another $25 million to grants aimed at getting these students back on track.
“Schools with students in this category may apply for these grants to leverage additional tutoring services, non-traditional staff, or supplement existing learning loss services,” he said. “By working with our local school systems and providing targeted funds to bring these kids back up to grade level, I’m confident that we can lend a helping hand to the students who need it the most.”
The governor also listed several proposals he said will strengthen schools’ ability to keep students safe, including updating state law to include intruder alert drills, providing voluntary anti-gang and school safety training for new and current teachers, assigning the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security agency to review school safety plans and recommending continuing education and training updates for all school resource officers every two years.
“These reforms will make our schools safer, but also strengthen the state-local partnership to improve communication and sharing of best practices when it comes to improving school security,” Kemp said.
Kemp’s Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, released her slate of educational policy recommendations in June.
Her K-12 priorities include increasing the state base salary for teachers from $39,092 to $50,000 and raising average teacher pay from $62,500 to $73,500, which her campaign says will shift Georgia from 21st in the nation in teacher salaries to the top 10.
Abrams has also called for programs to help paraprofessionals earn their teaching certification while they work by expanding existing programs and grants. Her platform also includes partnering with colleges and universities to recruit students to teach in rural areas.
Next year’s legislative session is set to begin in January featuring lawmakers elected this November.
One major change that could come out of the 2023 General Assembly was not mentioned during Kemp’s remarks, but a powerful group of state senators is set to hold its second of three meetings Friday to discuss changes to the long-running Quality Basic Education formula that determines how the state’s share of education dollars are disbursed.
“We still have this kind of giant hole in the way that we fund schools by the fact that we don’t have any additional funding to educate students living in poverty,” Owens said. “And so I’m hoping that the Senate study committee, who has shown interest in that exact mechanism, can bring this more to the forefront as a way to really set up our funding system to do right by Georgians for the next 30 years of this formula.”