Few school bills remain on table after Crossover Day

Guns and tax legislation join small list to be considered during final days of session



ATLANTA – Crossover Day in the General Assembly – otherwise known as “Do or Die” Day – came and went last week with barely a whisper when it came to legislation dealing with schools. Only a handful of education-related bills were considered, with only two making it across the line.

In the 40-day legislative session, the 30th day is known as Crossover Day. Bills that have not passed from their original chamber, the Senate or House, by the end of day 30s are effectively dead for the session.

But as proven time and again, legislation with powerful sponsors or support is rarely ever dead. Some bills can be resurrected in a number of ways, generally by becoming an amendment to a bill that has life still in it.

Such was the case of House Bill 35, which would allow weapons in K-12 schools, with local board approval. The bill itself died in committee, but its language was slipped into H.B. 512, which seeks to open up locations where guns can be carried.

Currently, state law restricts guns on college campuses, churches, bars, state parks and other public areas. H.B. 512 would lift most of those restrictions.

State education officials had not been monitoring H.B. 512 closely since there was not a K-12 implication – until Crossover Day.

“While the Georgia School Superintendents Association and other organizations that focus on K-12 education had not followed H.B. 512 in its original form, it is now of more interest to K-12 folks, as the contents of H.B. 35 [was] inserted into H.B. 512 before it passed the House on Crossover Day,” said Herb Garrett, executive director of the GSSA.

He added the bill now heads to the Senate where, in his opinion, passage is likely.

In Fulton County, school safety officials are taking a watch and wait stance on the guns in school legislation, but note several concerns with such laws.

“This possibility [of school administrators with access to guns] certainly raises several questions, for instance training, impact on other state codes and potential use of the firearm itself from a ‘what happens afterwards?’ view,” said Mark Muma, director of safety and security for Fulton Schools.

Fulton Schools became a charter system this year, opening up flexibility at the local school level. But could a local school decide on its own that it wanted to arm its administrators, if the law passes?

Muma said the charter format is designed to provide certain flexibilities, but operational functions are still regulated by board policy, so the school board would have to set policy.

School safety in Fulton is primarily in the hands of the 60-plus school resource officers (SRO), who are fully trained law enforcement personnel with power similar to local police departments. In Fulton, there is at least one SRO in every high school and middle school in the system, and elementary schools also have access to these officers.

“All of our officers have elementary school assignments,” said Muma. “We require them to visit with the elementary-level principals several times throughout the school year, become a member of their safety team and be available to the elementary schools when needed.”

The only education bill to pass the Senate on Crossover Day was Senate Bill 243, which seeks to provide more transparency on the state’s tax credit scholarship program. This issue has been one of the most hotly debated issues with proponents maintaining the tax credits allow low-income students access to private schools, while opponents argue it takes away $50 million in revenue with no oversight or track record of accomplishments.

But in a Republican-controlled Legislature, tightening the restrictions on a program that is essentially a voucher program, according to education officials, was not going to happen.

In the end, efforts to raise the cap from $50 million failed, but so did any attempts to add more oversight to who is eligible to receive a scholarship.

An earlier amendment that would have required attendance for at least six weeks in a public school in order to be eligible for the scholarship was essentially eliminated with a waiver clause. Students are now eligible for the scholarship if they are zoned to go to a low-performing school, have been subject to any documented bullying or if they provide a written statement that a school’s curriculum conflicts with their religious beliefs.

With 10 days left of the 2013 General Assembly, other education bills that still remain alive include:

H.B. 54 – Lowers the eligibility for the HOPE grants from 3.0 to 2.0 grade point average. Applies only to students attending Georgia’s 26 technical colleges.

H.B. 123 – Parent Trigger Bill. Allows parents or staff of a local school to petition their school board to become a charter school.

H.B. 244 – Teacher Evaluation Bill. School systems must have a teacher evaluation process in place by the 2014-2015 school year that weights student achievement at 50 percent.

H.B. 285 – Return to Play Act. Requires schools to create policies to determine when a student can return to play a sport after a concussion.

Bills that did not pass Crossover Day include all legislation dealing with mandatory attendance age or drop-out age, restoration of austerity cuts, dropping the eligibility of the HOPE scholarship from 3.0 to 2.0 GPA and mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in schools.

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