ATLANTA (AP) — State lawmakers spent the legislative session focusing on a fraction of the students in Georgia — those at a handful of charter schools created by a now-defunct commission.
The aim was to pass a constitutional amendment to address a nearly year-old ruling by the state Supreme Court that outlawed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which approved 16 schools before it was disbanded in May. The proposal dominated much of the legislative session, stealing the spotlight from other priorities including tax and criminal justice reform and the state budget.
"We can't afford not to supply more educational opportunities to students," said House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the Republican who ushered the constitutional amendment through both chambers this year. "An educated workforce is the No. 1 criteria of international and national companies looking to locate in the state. How can we afford to accept the status quo?"
But critics said lawmakers should have paid more attention to nearly $1 billion in cuts that have not been restored to K-12 schools, the 1.7 million students enrolled in Georgia's public schools and the teachers who haven't had a raise since 2008.
"There was no attempt to plug the hole in funding," said Angela Palm with the Georgia School Boards Association. "I realize the state is in the early stages of recovery, but we need a plan for how we are going to get back into basic funding."
With charter schools the focus and lawmakers anxious to get home to campaign for November's election, GOP leaders ignored complaints from Democratic lawmakers that cuts made to the HOPE scholarship last year were hurting poor students. Gov. Nathan Deal urged patience, saying the changes need more time to see if they're working.
It was a "very good legislative session for improving educational opportunities for all Georgians — from our earliest learners to those attending our college and universities," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.
Other legislation passed this session included a bill that would force educators caught breaking the rules on tests to return their bonus money, and $2 million in extra pay for educators who are certified to teach science, technology, math and engineering.
Lawmakers also approved a bill that would give grades to schools based on how their students perform, and a measure that would allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools and other government buildings. Deal also pushed for 10 days to be added back to the prekindergarten calendar and budgeted for mentors to help young students read on grade level by third grade.
All measures must still be signed by the governor to become law.
House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman, a Republican from Duluth, said he hopes to address education funding issues next year.
"Next year will be hard lifting," Coleman said. "I think the vehicles to allow it to happen are in place."
The state is spending less per public school student than it did a decade ago — when adjusted for inflation. In addition, lagging property tax collections has meant layoffs, furlough days, program cuts, canceled field trips and larger class sizes.
Districts have handed out up to 10 furlough days for employees while increasing the cost of health insurance, effectively cutting salaries.
Ultimately, voters will decide in November whether to change the state's constitution to let a commission create charter schools over the objection of local school boards. Jones and other supporters said the measure will give parents a choice in where their children attend school, no matter their household income or where they live.
"That's all the Republicans, frankly, have offered with respect to education this year. And that just doesn't advance the ball," said state Sen. Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat who led the push to change the HOPE scholarship. "It's a side show. One that in the end will harm local school boards."
Carter wants to overhaul the program to restore full scholarships for all students by instituting an income cap, among other changes. Last year, lawmakers cut the nearly 20-year-old scholarship program for all but the state's highest achieving students, eliminating fees and a book stipend from the awards.
They also began requiring a 3.0 GPA for all technical school students getting awards, which led to thousands of students losing their money.
Deal said the state should focus more on improving high schools so that graduates are ready for college — not how to hand out scholarships to more graduates.
The governor launched a privately funded, need-based scholarship program aimed at grooming low-income middle school students for college. The students can get up to $10,000 for four years of college if they agree to stay out of trouble and get good grades, and many of the state's colleges have agreed to match that money.
The state's colleges saw little legislative action this year.
A bill barring illegal immigrants from all state colleges, universities and technical schools failed to pass. Already, illegal immigrants are banned from the most competitive state schools but can still be admitted to any other state college or university, provided that they pay out-of-state tuition.
Follow Dorie Turner at http://twitter.com/dorieturner.