Greetings, colleagues. On February 19, as part of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Day on Capitol Hill, I met and talked with state legislators and learned about potential bills that would affect all public teachers’ jobs if they become law. In what follows, I aim to provide some highlights, color, and quotes from my experience.
Pending bills surrounding altering the Teacher Retirement System and increasing private-school vouchers at the expense of public school funds maintained the focus of much of the day as hundreds of educators converged in Atlanta on Tuesday, February 19, to learn and lobby at the golden dome. And ideas surrounding the potential $3,000 raise for educators—how much, who would receive it, and how soon—continued to surface.
Lawmakers and PAGE officials emphasized the importance of building relationships with lawmakers, many of whom do not consider themselves experts on education issues. Thus, if educators can talk to these elected representatives more often than just when they have a complaint, the lobbying stands to have greater success, said Rep. Rich Jasperse, chair of the Senate Education committee.
Jasperse recommended playing the teacher role and educating lawmakers patiently via phone calls, emails, or in-person meetings.
“Don’t shame them . . . if they don’t understand,” he said. “Go back to your teaching world. Invite them in. How are they supposed to understand?”
I spoke with both legislators representing my home area. I spotted newly elected state Senator Sheikh Rahman in the hallway on his way to a meeting and talked with him for a few minutes. Re-elected State House Rep. Dewey McClain, a former Falcons player, accepted my invitation to talk over lunch. Anyone can find their state representative and senator by entering their address on PAGE’s “Find Your Public Officials” tool under the Legislative tab on the website: Find your Public Official. The site also offers links to register to vote, look up legislation, and sign up to receive a daily report of state education legislation making news at the Capitol.
Highlighting key issues:
T.R.S.—Tommy Benton, chair of the House Retirement Committee, has proposed a bill that would affect the retirement of any educator hired for the upcoming school year. He says his goal is to preserve and strengthen one of the country’s best pension plans.
The T.R.S. has a 10-year investment return of 6.1 percent compared with a 5.8 percent return nationally. The state has supplemented the fund in recent years, though, partly because fewer teachers were paying into the system, due to the Great Recession, and less money was collected for retirees.
One of the biggest changes would be not allowing new enrollees to use their sick-leave balance toward retirement time. Concerns arose that this would lead to teachers using more sick leave during their active teaching career; thus, districts would need more substitute teachers and students would receive less instruction time with highly qualified teachers. Benton downplayed these concerns.
“They’re sick days,” he said. “I think teachers are better than that.”
Additionally, Benton has called for teachers to contribute a higher percentage of their salary. He has discussed a range of 5 to 9 or 6 to 10 percent. Now, educators contribute between 5 and 6 percent of their salary.
Benton also has called for a “Rule of 85” to dictate when a T.R.S. member can retire. This means one’s age plus years of service must add up to 85.
PAGE has expressed numerous concerns about these proposals but has pledged to continue to work with lawmakers and gain teacher input. Craig Harper, the PAGE executive director, said he worries about the T.R.S. alterations further hurting a drying-up teacher pipeline.
Several lawmakers in a public hearing of the bill, concurred. Rep. Steve Tarvin expressed appreciation for the role teachers played in his life.
“T.R.S. is a solid, solid retirement system,” Tarvin said. “I see it as an investment in those who make a difference for the children of Georgia.”
Raises—With Benton’s desire to raise the percent educators contribute to T.R.S., PAGE has expressed concern the change would negate Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed teacher pay raises for new teachers. During the campaign, Kemp pledged a $5,000 teacher pay raise. For the upcoming budget, he has proposed giving educators an increase of $3,000 with the promise of the other $2,000 in the future.
However, once PAGE and others examined the language, discussion and debate has surrounded who exactly would receive this raise. As of now, school counselors, social workers, media specialists, and special-education specialists only would be eligible for a 2 percent increase on the state $34,000 salary, meaning about $680.
Some expressed an interest in expanding the raise to more employees and lowering the amount to, for instance, $2,750. Discussion continues, which is why now would be the time for anyone to contact their legislators to express their views.
Benton drew so many questions and concerns on February 19 that PAGE collected them from attendees on notecards and vowed to provide them to the committee considering the bill. Having attending this event for much of the past decade, I cannot recall this many questions and interest from attendees in any legislation proposal. Benton emphasized the importance of seeking input at this crucial time for T.R.S.’s future.
“Sometimes you only get one chance to make things better,” he said.
Vouchers—PAGE continues to express concern with state tax dollars being used to pay for some students to attend private schools. Among other concerns, PAGE officials said, this bill would cost more money in a time when legislators have said T.R.S. needs additional funds and the Governor has pledged to raise teacher salaries.House Bill 301, proposed by Rep. Wes Cantrell, would allow “educational savings accounts” to be created for eligible students, explained in more detail below.
School Safety— Some lawmakers are trying to address an increased public concern with social media threats related to school. Senate Bill 64 would make it a felony for juveniles to make terrorist threats against schools. Some hope this will deter threats, which take ever-increasing resources to investigate and, in some cases, take preventative actions.
Senate Bill 15, considered a high governor priority, requires multiple safety drills and plans. Mental health also is a focus of this bill with details included lower.
What follows is a portion of the legislative report from the Tuesday, Feb. 19, events—a daily email you can receive by signing up for it on the PAGE website—followed by one from Wednesday, Feb. 20. One often-overlooked benefit of PAGE membership remains your support of the PAGE legislative team, Josh Stephens and Margaret Ciccarelli. They daily build relationships with these legislators and provide testimony on our behalf. PAGE is a non-partisan organization, and we as educators agree on a vast majority of issues. PAGE uses occasional surveys to gauge overall educator views to guide and strengthen these lobbyists’ testimony to lawmakers. In fact, at Tuesday’s hearing on proposed T.R.S. changes, several legislators asked PAGE for data on these surveys.