In less than six weeks, Georgians will elect a new governor. Both major candidates — Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams — say they’d make public education a priority.
They even agree on a few issues. Both have pledged to fully fund schools through the state’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. They both want to beef up reading programs, reduce testing and pay teachers more.
But they also disagree on plenty.
The SSO Debate
One of their sharpest differences centers on Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program. It’s Georgia’s version of a school voucher program.
Advocates of the plan say it expands school choice by offering scholarships to public school students to attend private schools. Taxpayers who donate to a Student Scholarship Organization (SSO) receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to a certain amount — $1,000 per individual, $2,500 for married couples filing jointly. The SSO program is capped at $100 million a year, meaning once that amount has been reached, the state stops accepting donations.
Abrams says it’s a poor use of potential revenue.
“It’s in our Constitution that Georgia is responsible for the education of our children through our public education system,” Abrams said. “We cannot do that when we are diverting $100 million a year to private education through backdoor vouchers called Student Scholarship Organizations.”
Kemp, however, wants to raise the SSO cap to $200 million. He sees it as a way to expand choice and opportunities for families.
“I understand the argument about that [diverting revenue], but that argument was also being made before QBE was fully funded [the Legislature approved full funding this year for the first time since 2003] and also paying our teachers correctly, so we’re going to do any and all to allow to have school choice but also support public education because it’s good for parents to have options to do the best for their child, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Kemp said.
Abrams says the state should use the money that currently goes toward SSOs to invest in schools that are under-resourced.
“We know that if a child goes to class but can’t focus on the chalkboard because they can’t see it or because they haven’t eaten since the day before, we know that’s a problem,” Abrams said. “We know that children who live in transient homes where they don’t know if they’re going to bed in a bed or on a couch or in a car that they can’t learn as well. We have to do wrap-around services because it’s the only way we can serve every child in our school system.”
Wrap-around services often include resources like a food pantry families can use, after-school tutoring and health screenings.
Abrams plans to pay for her proposals by closing tax loopholes and eliminating the SSO program, which would require legislative approval.
Courting The Teacher Vote
Kemp, for his part, has proposed giving teachers a $5,000 a year pay raise. It would cost the state $600 million a year, but Kemp says Georgia can handle the expense, as revenues surpassed $900 million in FY 2018.
“This is affordable and prudent,” he said. “It’s an investment in our educators, and that is an investment in our future.”
Should the state need to tighten its belt in the face of another economic downturn, Kemp says he’ll employ the cost-cutting measures he had to use as secretary of state.
“We have figured out ways in our office to use technology to save money and to do a better job with less people,” Kemp said. “I believe we can do that throughout state government and be able to pay for the things that are our priorities, and education is going to be a priority.”
Before Kemp announced his plan to increase teachers’ salaries, the Georgia Association of Educators endorsed Abrams for governor. In a statement, GAE President Charlotte Booker pointed to Abrams’ tenure in the state Legislature.
“GAE believes that Abrams’ history and voting record as a state representative and then minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, is a solid indicator of what she will continue to do as governor,” Booker said. “It shows that she is a staunch supporter of public education.”
Kemp and Abrams are locked in a tight race, which will conclude Nov. 6. Voter registration ends Oct. 9. Early voting begins Oct. 15 and ends Nov. 5.