Sunday Reads – Feb. 6, 2022

We’ve all made it through Groundhog Day, so buckle up – the legislature’s in session and lawmakers are looking at schools and teachers, the federal hate crimes trial of three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery starts Monday, and one small group proves it’s possible to make small changes in the world. And we’ve linked some statehouse bill language for you to read for yourself, then we’ve got some pieces for you to consider long past your second cup of coffee.


Paddlers navigate the water trail to Minnie’s Lake in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Credit: Tom Wilson

Sisters make waves

If you don’t think grassroots efforts by a focused group can’t influence corporate America, look no further than the Okefenokee Swamp. A few months ago, The Current’s Mary Landers talked to members of the Felician Sisters of North America, a community of Catholic sisters, about their efforts to nudge chemical and mining giant Chemours to say they wouldn’t buy anything mined near the Okefenokee. On Thursday, that’s just what happened. Chemours released a statement to say they wouldn’t buy anything that Twin Pines Mining might pull from the land adjacent to the Okefenokee. Twin Pines responded to the move saying it will continue to pursue permits to mine there.


Public school priorities

Public school teachers have got to be wondering what they’ve done to anger the cosmos now. Several bills in the Georgia Legislature aim to change primary education in public schools through teacher mandates regarding their instructional material. The measures aren’t focused on resources or recovery but on defining what teachers teach – or not teach.

The lawmakers’ fervor comes on top of three Covid-driven years where teachers have had to move classes on and off line with dubious technology and anxious students and parents, bounce between classrooms and homes during shutdowns, and enforce or not enforce mask and evolving health department recommendations just to be able to present some material to their students. Even though Gov. Kemp has promised them a raise, it may not be enough to keep dedicated teachers in the system much longer. Certainly, legislators telling them how to do their jobs is not on the top of teachers’ needs lists for this session. House Bill 449, aka “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” joins Senate Bill 226 that allows challenges to school books and House Bill 888 will regulate the discussion of racial history. HB 449 is designed to guarantee parents a look at classroom teaching material within 3 days of a request. The stated goal of the bill is to help parents protect their children from “undue infringement by a state or local government entity.” No one disagrees that parents should have information, but priorities may differ. A report last year by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, teachers polled said they wanted more materials relevant to parents and believe parents need to know more about “their schools’ class size, teacher qualifications, teacher retention and access to art, music, physical education and foreign languages classes than standardized test scores.” The report also said teachers believe smaller class sizes were the key to success, along with more school counselors.


Public funding per student or school?

Two other bills will provide a way to move more than $6,000 per student out of state school funding to private schools through voucher programs. House bills 60 and 999 set up processes for parents to move their students out of public schools with state aid for tuition. Proponents say it will help parents make decisions for schools that may be a better match for their children; critics say it’s a coupon for people who’ve already made the choice and will only weaken public schools. Sponsor Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, says it’s time to upend the state’s funding model by setting aside money for students instead of systems.

No matter how you see it, there’s time for both bills to spell out how the money is used and where it goes and what type of oversight there will be for it. Reporting by The Current in late 2020 showed the state’s Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit was barely monitored at all, and there was no investigative process ever established to check to see how or where the $600 million dollars of taxpayer money was being spent. One of the bills will survive and likely incorporate pieces of the other. HB 999, aka The Georgia Educational Freedom Act, has now passed second reads in the House.

One bill that seeks to help students is House Bill 10, which would provide additional funds to schools that serve students in living in poverty, specifically children in foster care or who are homeless, or in families who qualify for supplemental aid to buy food. Georgia is one of only 8 states that doesn’t provide additional funding to educate students living in poverty. The move would cost $343 million, a tiny fraction of the $2.95 billion the state received in tax receipts just in January or the $6 billion in federal money the state’s schools received from the CARES Act, CARES II and American Rescue Plan. Even though the bill was hailed as a bipartisan effort, it’s received no visibility from the governor or other legislators. Currently, HB 10 sits in the hopper, stuck at second-read status since last year.


Considerable

As promised, we’re sharing links each week of stories or information to provide perspective, context and just good reads.

Want to share a story or info with all of us? Send it to thecurrentga@gmail.org.


Two pleas, then no pleas

Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, Willam “Roddie” Bryan Credit: Court pool photos

An update from the week: On Monday, Travis and Greg McMichael said they’d plead to U.S. hate-crimes charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The judge didn’t accept their deals, which came with a promise of incarceration in a federal prison instead of one in Georgia. Arbery’s mom and family members argued that the men should serve their life sentences in the state where they were convicted by a jury of their peers. On Friday, the McMichaels decided they’d rescind their pleas and head for trial, along with William Bryan. After all of that, it was evident that the U.S. attorneys have their work cut out for them since only about 1% of hate-crimes cases ever make it to court. Catch up on where things stand after Friday’s hearing with this story from The Current’s Margaret Coker. What’s next? Jury selection starts Monday.


Your second cup: Teachers talk pandemic

Researchers observing elementary education over the past three Covid-driven school years find teachers are often trying to find balance between policy, parents and their concerns for students. This report from The Conversation gives insight to how they view the future after recent challenges.



Chemours pledges to avoid mining near Okefenokee

Pressure from shareholding Catholic sisters prompts a large mining company to distance itself from Okefenokee-adjacent mining, but privately held Twin Pines Minerals LLC continues to seek permits.

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Arbery hate crimes trial starts with convictions in limbo

The McMichaels rescinded their guilty pleas and decided to take their chances at trial, along with Bryan, who was never party to the plea negotiations. The fact that the McMichaels had been ready to plead guilty can’t be used against them in the upcoming court case, the judge said.

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Legislation sets process for parents to view teachers’ materials

Teachers would have 3 days to provide information to a parent’s request to access instructional material.

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House bills to create state-funded school vouchers advance, draw criticism

Critics say plan would become coupons for students already in private school; proponents say it offers alternatives for failing schools.

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Georgia tax receipts rise for seventh consecutive month

The state brought in about $2.95 billion last month, up $423.5 million, or 16.7%, compared to January of last year.

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‘Teaching has always been hard, but it’s never been like this’

Following numerous Covid spikes in the classrooms over the past 3 years, K-12 education is one of many systems buckling under the weight of expanding needs. Teachers’ experiences are often overlooked.

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Georgia Power plans to finish shift from coal-fired plants by 2035

As nuclear plant comes on line, Georgia Power plans to shutter 12 coal units by 2028 – representing a loss of 3,500 megawatts, which the utility plans to offset with 2,356 megawatts in natural gas.

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Nearly a year after Georgia mass shootings, bill to loosen gun rules on the move

A Georgia Senate committee advanced legislation that would allow Georgians to carry firearms without a license.

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Georgia COVID-19 daily statistics

Today’s cases, change, deaths, hospitalizations, testing, vaccination sites and tracker

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