With much ceremony, the Georgia General Assembly kicked off the 2018 legislative session last week. Thanks to election-year buzz, candidates have fueled talk of big education reforms that could see needed movement. Because this session is expected to fly by, we have our eye on a couple of key school choice bills that could shuffle through the process quickly.
Here are two important pieces of legislation that we hope will (finally) get the traction they deserve in the State House and Senate.
Tax Credit Scholarship Expansion
No child should be denied the opportunity to seek out the education they need because of an arbitrary government roadblock, but that’s exactly what’s happening to thousands of Georgia students.
The state currently offers limited access to a popular tax credit scholarship, allowing only a small number of families an opportunity to seek out the right education for their children. However, a low cap on donated funds has meant that generous contributors- and students the program is supposed to serve- have been turned away by the state because of over-demand.
Lawmakers are said to be considering raising the program’s $58 million ceiling, which would lift barriers for many more Georgia children. Because the kids waiting in line for scholarships can’t afford another year in the wrong classroom, we’re urging the legislature to waste no time in passing an expansion of the tax credit scholarship bill.
Education Savings Accounts
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) aim to provide needed flexibility and customized education options for Georgia parents. Similar to Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) or Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), under an ESA, the state would put money into a restricted account for education expenses that parents would control.
While there are several versions of the legislation that seek to fit the needs of different families-such as those in the military or those with children who have disabilities- the passage of nearly any of these bills would make a big impact in the lives of many Georgia parents.
The Georgia Center for Opportunity is committed to removing barriers for our state’s kids so that they receive the education they need. While the legislature will have their hands full, we hope they agree that bills benefitting children and their families should stand out among their highest priorities. To follow the progress of these bills with us, check back on our blog or subscribe to the GCO’s newsletter.
Below is the first edition of our Capitol Update newsletter for 2014. If you’d like to receive future editions in your inbox, sign up here.
2014 Session Begins
By: Eric Cochling, VP of Public Policy
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Welcome to the first edition of our Capitol Update for 2014. As we have done for several years, we will be sending out regular updates to let you know what’s happening under the gold dome (good, bad or otherwise) during the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly. Should you have any questions or comments about the content of these updates, please email Eric Cochling.
New Year, Election Near
The 152nd session of the Georgia General Assembly started on Monday. Since this is an election year, the session promises to be a short one as members of the Assembly look to campaign and raise money, things they cannot legally do while in session.
If this week has been any indication, activity will be fast and furious until the end of session, which is expected to end in mid-March this year. It doesn’t help the sense of urgency that the state is on the verge of moving our primary election from July to May. Legislation moving the primary election made its way through both houses of the General Assembly this week and is now on the way to the Governor for his signature.
With the elections looming and based on conversations we have had with lawmakers, we also expect the legislature to steer clear of politically divisive legislation. That said, “politically divisive” is in the eye of the beholder and you can never be certain what bills will generate controversy. It is safe to say that all legislators hope to leave this session, in particular, having made as few of their constituents mad as possible.
Legislation, Study Committees, and Rumors to Watch
– Education –
This week, Governor Deal proposed a $42.3 billion budget – more than half of which is coming from the federal government!! – that includes $547 million in additional funding for Georgia’s public school system to fund teacher pay increases and adding back days to the school calendar.
In other news, House Resolution 486, sponsored by Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) would amend the Georgia Constitution to allow municipalities created in 2005 or later (and contiguous municipalities) to form city school systems.
In the category of “Finally!,” Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) says that he is planning to introduce legislation to address some of the problems created by Georgia’s zero-tolerance law relative to weapons on school property. It would be great if accidentally leaving a pocket knife in your car didn’t result in a criminal record.
– Criminal Justice Reform –
Georgia’s Criminal Justice Reform Council released its third set of recommendations in three years on January 10th, this time focusing on reforming aspects of prisoner reentry. GCO testified before the council in November and we are happy to see that many of the recommendations from our Prisoner Reentry Working Group were included in the council’s report.
The council’s official recommendations include the following:
- Each prisoner should have a Transition Accountability Plan initiated at the time they enter prison and consistently used during incarceration that will determine the best path to successful reentry;
- State corrections agencies should work more closely with private agencies and returning citizens to locate and secure sustainable, safe, and affordable housing;
- The food stamp ban on offenders convicted of a drug-related felony should be lifted, provided that they maintain a certificate of program completion issued by the Department of Corrections showing that they are in good standing and in compliance;
- Judges should be allowed to modify driver’s license restrictions for those convicted of minor drug offenses not involving a vehicle so that they are able to operate a vehicle;
- In hiring for state employment, job candidates should not be asked about criminal history until the interview stage.
- Negligent hiring liability protection should be provided for companies willing to hire ex-offenders under certain conditions.
It is very likely that we will see these recommendations included in a criminal justice reform bill this session. We will keep you posted.
– Marriage and Family –
It’s difficult to deny the harm that no-fault divorce causes to children. It’s also difficult to know exactly what needs to be done to help protect kids from unecessary divorce. House Bill 684, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), offers at least part of the answer.
This legislation would only affect couples with minor children, where the grounds for divorce are irreconcilable differences (no-fault). In those cases, the legislation would require divorcing parents to take an eight-hour course that explains how divorce will impact everyone involved, especially the children. It would also require a “discernment period” of 320 days before a court could grant the divorce. The waiting period could be waived in cases involving abuse, neglect, or abandonment and, importantly, the existence of abuse, neglect, or abandonment could be proven to a judge outside of the public eye and public record.
The thinking is that during the discernment period, tensions could cool and the couple could experience life apart – before making it permanent – so that they could see how their divorce would impact their children over the course of the year (including birthdays, holidays, etc.). While not a silver bullet to solve the marriage and divorce crisis in the country, this is certainly a good way to encourage couples with children to stay together.
Visit Allies for Family Life and look for “Children’s Hope for Family Act” for more information.
– Child Welfare –
According to this report, it appears that Georgia is moving quickly to obtain a federal waiver that would allow the state more flexibility in how it spends federal foster care dollars. Governor Deal has indicated that the new flexibility would be used to create new public/private partnerships that would allow private agencies to take a lead role in providing foster care and other child protection services. The Casey Family Foundation has praised the use of waivers and privatization in other states where it has been a success and called for extending the availability of waivers to the states beyond this year.
Our team continues to serve on the Governor’s Office of Children and Families CSEC Task Force, which is making real strides in raising awareness of child sex trafficking in Georgia and finding effective ways to rescue and serve victims, while reducing demand. The subgroup on which we serve recently developed a certification program for businesses that commit to fighting child sex trafficking called Champions for Safe Children. We are now in the process of delivering trainings for interested companies around the metro area. Next up: developing similar certification programs for cities and neighborhoods.
Please join us for our 4th annual School Choice Celebration & Rally on Tuesday, January 28th, from noon to 2pm at the Georgia State Capitol. Our special guest will be Keshia Knight Pulliam (Cosby Show and House of Payne). Registration is encouraged.
The General Assembly has been around a while and like any old institution it has developed its own language. James Salzer at the AJC put this glossary together to help us outsiders keep track of what’s happening.
Thanks to Jamie Lord, our director of government affairs, and Jacob Stubbs, our legislative intern and John Jay Fellowship alumnus for their able contributions to this update.