School voucher measure narrowly fails in state House  

Justin Wang and Ishan Mahajan of Lambert High School in Forsyth County speak to Georgia Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, about a school voucher bill. (Photo credit: John Arthur Brown)

ATLANTA – Legislation to offer private-school vouchers to Georgia students attending low-performing public schools failed Wednesday night in the state House of Representatives.  

The bill would have created $6,500 vouchers for Georgia students to use for private-school or home-schooling expenses if they were assigned to attend a public school in the lowest-performing quartile of public schools in the state.  

The bill passed in the Senate earlier this month but ultimately failed to survive in the House, losing on an 85-89 vote.  A group of mostly rural Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the measure.  

The House Rules Committee made several last-minute changes to the bill on Wednesday in an effort to make the proposal more palatable. The amendments would have tied the scholarship amount to changes in the state’s education funding formula and changed the method for determining which schools qualify as low performing.  

But those changes failed to convince enough legislators to vote for the bill.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, argued school voucher measures are popular with voters of all backgrounds, including rural voters and Democrats. She said Georgia students deserve a choice about where they study.  

“Some students may learn best in a home school environment, in a charter school … and, yes, sometimes in a private school,” she said. “An education can change a life. Who are we not to give some students another option?”  

Democrats argued the voucher measure would divert funds from public education and that the $6,500 scholarship amount would be insufficient to cover private school tuition.  

“This bill does nothing but perpetuate the gross inequities that have existed in our state’s education system for far too long,” said Rep. Miriam Paris, D-Macon. “Maybe if we spent as much time and resources on addressing the root issues related to student achievement in our state … like getting literacy taken care of, maybe then we might begin to see some real progress.”

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

Bill requiring harsher penalties for gang recruitment clears General Assembly 

State Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, speaks against a bill imposing tougher penalties for gang recruitment. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – The state Senate gave final passage Wednesday to legislation imposing mandatory minimum prison terms for gang recruitment. 

Senate Bill 44 requires judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members. It would also impose tougher penalties for those who recruit someone under age 17 or someone with a disability to a gang, requiring at least a 10-year sentence.    

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has made cracking down on gangs an important part of his legislative agenda this year.  

“There’s no room for street gangs in Georgia. This bill is going to help prosecutors across the state. It’s going to help children,” said Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, one of the governor’s Senate floor leaders. “It’s going to really provide serious penalties for someone that tries to recruit a child into a life of crime by asking them to join a street gang.”  

The Georgia House of Representatives amended the bill earlier this month to restrict judges’ abilities to allow people accused of certain crimes to be released without bond, called an “unsecured judicial release” in legal parlance.  

The bill would prohibit judges from allowing people accused of certain crimes  to go without bond if they have been convicted of bond jumping within the past five years or if a bench warrant for a failure to appear in court has been issued to the person within the past five years.  

Judges would also be required to consider the accused’s criminal history before allowing release without bail. 

The bond-related additions to the bill drew criticism from Senate Democrats.  

“These cash bail provisions are not limited to gang activity,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs.

“Let’s say you miss court for some reason and there are plenty of human reasons to miss court.[If] you get charged with improper lane change or speeding … now all of a sudden the judge does not have discretion for five years to let you go on your own recognizance. They have to put a cash dollar value on your bail.”  

Hatchett dismissed those concerns. 

“If you do not show up for court and you have a bench warrant – let’s say you had work – and then you go back to court, you tell them, ‘Hey, I didn’t show up.’ “ Then, the warrant will be recalled,” he said. “Once the warrant’s recalled, the five-year clock no longer applies. That’s what it says in the bill.” 

The legislation passed on a 30-20 party line vote and now heads to Gov. 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.  

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.

Bill banning TikTok on state-owned devices clears General Assembly 

Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, sponsored a bill banning TikTok on state-owned devices.

ATLANTA – The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Monday to codify a ban on the use of TikTok on state-owned devices.   

“Hopefully, we will see the federal government and other states follow Georgia’s lead,” said Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, the bill’s sponsor.  

Senate Bill 93 would codify into state law Gov. Brian Kemp’s directive last year prohibiting the use of TikTok, a highly popular video hosting service that runs user-submitted videos, and other similar applications on state-owned devices.  

TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, Byte Dance, and there is concern that its ties to the Chinese government could expose sensitive state data to a foreign government.    

“It only takes one computer and one device to make us vulnerable,” Anavitarte told a state House committee earlier this month.  “The concern [is] …foreign adversaries having ownership [of social media platforms] and the security concerns on government devices.”  

The bill would also apply to similar social media platforms that are directly or indirectly owned by foreign adversaries. 

However, the bill provides exceptions for law-enforcement investigations, cybersecurity research and for other governmental purposes.   

Georgia joins at least 25 other states that have banned TikTok on state-owned devices.  

The federal government has already banned the application on government-owned devices. Congress held a lengthy hearing on the matter last week that featured an appearance by TikTok CEO Shou Chew. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation that would ban the app entirely. 

The Georgia bill now heads to 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.