General Assembly passes two bills aimed at improving Georgia’s reading rates

ATLANTA – The state legislature has passed two bills aimed at boosting early literacy rates in Georgia.  

The Georgia Early Literacy Act (House Bill 538), sponsored by Rep. Bethany Ballard, R-Warner Robins, a former teacher, aims to improve the quality of early reading instruction.   

The legislation would require schools to screen students from kindergarten to third grade on their reading proficiency three times a year. Students who are identified as falling behind in reading would receive an individual reading improvement plan within 30 days of being identified followed by intensive reading intervention until they catch up  

School systems would also be required to amp up training of teachers in “the science of reading” – a method of teaching reading that draws on evidence from psychology and neuroscience and includes phonics instruction.   

“The Georgia Early Literacy Act is a giant step forward in literacy education and will be life changing for our state’s children,” Ballard said. “Today is the day we will make sure all Georgia’s children learn to read.”

The bill would also require the state Board of Education to develop a list of high-quality, evidence-backed reading instructional and screening tools for school districts and boost literacy training for future teachers.

The state’s Georgia Assessments for Certification of Educators, or GACE, will also be redesigned so that its certification requirements align with the current science of reading. 

The state Department of Education will help support local school districts with these training efforts. Beginning in 2026, the agency will also be required to issue an annual report on the implementation of the new bill.  

A companion bill sponsored by state Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, requires Georgia to set up a 30-member Council on Literacy. The members will include state legislators, a state Board of Education member, literacy experts, teachers, and local school district officials.  

The council will be responsible for ensuring the implementation of the Early Literacy Act and provide an annual report that includes recommendations for addressing problems in the state’s literacy effort.  

“This is a necessary step in creating an educated workforce that will better our state for years to come,” Hickman said. 

According to the latest Georgia Milestones testing results, 36.2% of Georgia third graders are reading below grade level.  

Both bills passed nearly unanimously in the state House and Senate and now head to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Supreme Court hears arguments in abortion ban case 

A protest against Georgia’s abortion ban outside the state Capitol. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case challenging a Georgia law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.  

The General Assembly passed – and Gov. Brian Kemp signed – the LIFE Act (House Bill 481) in 2019. The law bans most abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected with exceptions in the case of rape, incest and medical emergencies. 

Federal courts blocked the law from taking effect for several years. But after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion by overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision last June, a federal judge allowed the Georgia law to take effect.  

Opponents of the measure – led by reproductive rights group SisterSong – then took their fight to state court. Last November, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney ruled the Georgia law had been void from the start because it violated the U.S. Constitution as it stood in 2019, when Georgia’s abortion ban was enacted.  

Republican state Attorney General Chris Carr and his team appealed that ruling, giving rise to the Georgia Supreme Court case heard on Tuesday. Soon after, the state Supreme Court ruled that the law could take effect in Georgia while litigation was pending, meaning that most abortions after six weeks are currently banned in Georgia.  

“The LIFE Act engenders strong policy views, but there is nothing controversial or difficult about the legal question before this court, which is simply whether an erroneous, overruled judicial opinion can invalidate a state statute,” Stephen Petrany argued for the attorney general’s office.  

“Because the LIFE Act would be valid if enacted today, under the exact same federal Constitution, it was valid when it was enacted [in 2019],” Petrany added.  

In contrast, lawyers for the groups challenging the law countered that the law was void when the state legislature passed it and therefore should be deemed invalid, despite the subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.  

“When the legislature passes a law that is in violation of the Constitution, it is an overstep of their authority to do so,” Julia Stone argued.  

“This is not a case where there was gray area … in 2019,” Stone added. “For 50 years, the rule was states could not ban abortions before the point of viability, and when the General Assembly passed HB 481 and sought to ban abortions … [that] had been perfectly clear for 50 years. [The state legislature] directly conflicted with that precedent.” 

At a post-hearing press conference in front of the Supreme Court, Stone noted that if the law is struck down, Georgia lawmakers could enact another abortion ban but would have to do so in the new legal and political environment created by the overturning of Roe v. Wade.  

The Supreme Court is likely to issue a decision in the case by this summer. The South Carolina Supreme Court in January found that state’s similar abortion law unconstitutional under state law.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State House bans private funds to local elections offices

Georgia Rep. Saira Draper

ATLANTA – Local elections offices in Georgia would not be allowed to accept donations from private sources to help run their operations under a Republican-backed bill that has passed the state House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 222 cleared the lower chamber along party lines 100-69 late Monday night, the last bill lawmakers took up in a marathon next-to-last day of this year’s legislative session.

The legislation stems from complaints from Republicans in Georgia and other states about private donations flowing into elections offices in Democratic counties, notably a $350 million contribution by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the nonprofit Center for Technology and Civic Life during the 2020 election.

“It’s common sense for us to make sure we’re banning private money from public elections,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, who carried the bill in the House.

But House Democrats said cutting off local elections offices from access to grants from private nonprofits would leave already resource-poor county elections officials ill equipped to deal with thousands of challenges to voters’ qualifications out-of-state groups have been filing since the 2020 elections.

“The primary intent of these challenges is to gum up the works … to divert elections workers from their duties,” said Rep. Saira Draper, D-Atlanta. “Counties will be cut off from the funds they need to do their jobs.”

Draper said banning local governments from accepting private donations would leave the State Election Board in charge of allocating funds to all 159 Georgia counties, a blow to local control.

“Why do we presume the State Election Board knows what our counties need better than our counties?” she asked.

Because of changes the House made to the bill, it now heads back to the Senate, which must act on it before the General Assembly adjourns for the year on Wednesday night if it is to become law.

Bill requiring counties to enforce local bans on homeless campers clears General Assembly

Georgia Sen. Carden Summers (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – Georgia cities and counties must enforce local ordinances prohibiting homeless people from camping and sleeping in public arenas under legislation that has gained final passage in the General Assembly.

The Republican-controlled state Senate passed the bill Monday night, voting 32-24 primarily along party lines, and sent it on to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. The Senate vote came a few hours after the Georgia House of Representatives passed the bill 99-76.

“We know that street camps are dangerous for homeless people themselves,” Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, who carried Senate Bill 62 in the House, told her legislative colleagues. “The cities that have allowed it have seen an increase in the number of homeless deaths.”

Democrats spoke out against the bill, particularly a late addition the House inserted prohibiting local governments and hospitals from dumping homeless people in other counties.

“Bills like this criminalize homelessness,” said Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn. “We need bills that address the root causes of homelessness.”

Democrats also accused Republicans of stomping on the concept of local control.

But Dempsey and other GOP lawmakers said the provision requiring local governments to enforce their ordinances against public camping and sleeping only applies if they have such ordinances.

“Local governments need to enforce the laws they have on their books. It’s that simple,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens.

“We want to ensure that cities in this state don’t become more like Los Angeles and Austin, Texas,” added House Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman John LaHood, R-Valdosta, referring to those cities’ problems with homeless encampments.

When the bill got to the Senate side Monday night, Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, complained that the original intent of the legislation was limited to requiring a state audit of the government funding available to address homelessness.

“Once we have a full audit, we can make some calculated decisions on how to use that money,” she said.

But Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, Senate Bill 62’s chief sponsor, said the issue of homelessness can’t wait for an audit. Summers chaired a Senate study committee on homelessness last summer and fall.

“Every person we interviewed said homeless is getting worse and worse and worse,” he said. “Each county must deal with homeless. Each county has to have a plan to deal with homeless.

General Assembly passes GOP-backed oversight board for prosecutors

State Rep. Houston Gaines (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The General Assembly voted largely along party lines Monday to create an oversight board for Georgia’s district attorneys and solicitors general.

The Republican-backed Senate Bill 92 passed in the Georgia House of Representatives 97-77 over the objections of House Democrats that the measure both isn’t needed and is being driven by politics. The state Senate followed suit a few hours later, giving the bill final passage 32-24.

The legislation, which now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk, would create the Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission, an eight-member board that would investigate complaints lodged against prosecutors and hold hearings.

The panel would have the power to discipline or remove prosecutors on a variety of grounds including mental or physical incapacity, willful misconduct or failure to perform the duties of the office, conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, or conduct that brings the office into disrepute.

Republicans have complained during the last several years about prosecutors in Democratic-led cities in Georgia who have been reluctant to prosecute certain crimes, notably during the civil unrest that occurred following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis by a white police officer in 2020.

“This bill was brought because we have district attorneys who are not doing their jobs,” said state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens.

Republican lawmakers also argued that – unlike judges, who are subject to Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission – there is no oversight board for prosecutors.

But Democrats countered that there are existing remedies for removing wayward prosecutors, including Georgia Bar Association rules, indictment by the state attorney general, impeachment, and ultimately elections.

Rep. Tanya Miller, D-Atlanta, accused Republicans of political motivations in pushing the bill.

“This is a power grab by the majority party to usurp the will of the voters,” she said.

But Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, said the current remedies to remove prosecutors are difficult to pursue. For example, the state bar isn’t equipped for the types of investigations that would be required of a district attorney who is the subject of a complaint, he said.

Florida has created an oversight board to discipline prosecutors who have refused to enforce state law, Reeves said.

“We don’t want to have prosecutorial veto of the laws we enact,” he said.