ATLANTA, Ga. — Schools are preparing to open in Georgia with new laws aimed at education in the new normal of a post-pandemic classroom.

Gov. Brian Kemp noted a year ago the state was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic that essentially shut down most schools and sent kids home to learn. A year later, most districts are gearing up to fully open for the 2021-22 school year.

“Georgia is open, and we are fast approaching a return to normal here in the Peach State,” Kemp said during a bill signing event at Kennesaw State University in May. “[This new legislation] sends a message that those brighter, more prosperous days start with putting our students and our educators first.”

New laws that went into effect on July 1 focused on the creation of a “teacher pipeline,” increased support for charter school students, inclusion of homeschooled students in public school activities, and the expansion of the state’s Special Needs Scholarship program.

The “teacher pipeline” bills are a package of new programs aimed at attracting more teachers into public schools, and to support those currently in classrooms.

“[These] bills are focused on recruiting, preparing, mentoring and retaining the best and brightest in education,” said Kemp, whose daughter recently graduated with an education degree.

The new laws expand the teaching opportunities for those without a teaching certificate, supports the state’s historically Black college and universities to graduate more teachers, gives an income tax credit for teachers in low-performing schools, incentivizes retired teachers to return to the classroom, and provides additional coaching and mentoring opportunities for all teachers.

“We've talked a lot about heroes this last year,” Kemp said at the signing. “And the hard work by teachers in Georgia and their heroic efforts have not been lost on me.”

Also signed into law is Senate Bill 59, sponsored by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell], which expands the state’s financial support of charter schools. Charter schools will now have a greater share of the approximately $11 billion in state funding for education through the same formula used to fund public schools. Charter schools saw increased enrollment last year as many public schools opted to remain virtual during the COVID pandemic.

“This [law] will allow students to get the resources they need to be successful in the classroom, and we'll protect parents by ensuring that every resource their student is entitled to [they] receive,” Kemp said.

The new law also creates a mechanism for local charter school staff to join the State Health Benefit Plan.

Home-schooled students now have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, at their zoned public schools with the signing of the “Dexter Mosely” Act into law.

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Supporters have tried for nearly a decade to get the law passed, but were finally successful this session. Students will need to enroll in at least one course at their zoned public school and maintain academic standards to remain eligible.

Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program has now expanded to include additional students into the voucher program. Previously only students with a federally-defined Individualized Education Plan (IEP) were eligible for state-funded vouchers to help pay for private schools.

The new law expands that to any student with a 504 plan, which more broadly defines a special need for academic accommodation.

While lawmakers have been trying for years to expand the 14-year-old program, it has been strongly opposed by education advocacy groups. Opponents cite the increasing amount of taxpayer funds leaving public schools and going to private schools which have no obligation to provide special services.

However, in a year marked by COVID-19 disruption and the push for alternative education options, the legislation found support.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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