In the coming days, thousands of Georgia students will return to school and officially begin the 2019-2020 academic year.

While many of the classrooms may look familiar and the cafeteria food taste the same, there are plenty of changes underway to improve teacher retention rates, address lingering mental health challenges, enhance educational outcomes and keep our students safe from violence and fear.

During the most recent legislative session, Republicans and Democrats partnered at the State Capitol to advance a series of reform measures and budget priorities that put Georgia students ahead of politics.

While we are proud of rising graduation rates and assessment scores, there are still serious challenges that cannot be ignored. Forty-four percent of Georgia educators leave the profession before five years of employment. This mass exodus of teachers has fostered a shortage and undeniable “brain drain” in school systems throughout our state. Such high turnover rates undermine academic success and put added stress on educators all across Georgia.

To help incentivize the best and brightest to remain in the classroom, we championed – and passed – the largest pay raise for educators, counselors and specialists in Georgia history. This $3,000 pay raise, which is a down payment on my promise to increase salaries by $5,000 annually, is an investment in Georgia’s future. By boosting retention rates, we can strengthen our work force, stay competitive, and provide the educational experience and learning opportunities that our students deserve.

In addition to improving retention rates, the legislature also approved funding for mental health services in Georgia high schools. As you know, students struggle with incredible stress and strain as they journey toward graduation. Thanks to scientific research and advances in medicine, we have a better understanding of how to address the mental health issues affecting our students in the classroom and beyond.

To help students battling anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, we expanded the APEX program, which quickly connects students with highly-trained counselors and mental health resources. This program – coupled with our continued focus on behavioral health – will alleviate the burden on teachers, ensure safety in the classroom, and help students overcome the challenges they face on their path to academic success.

Our schools should be safe environments that are conducive to learning. Sadly, we’ve seen evil people use cafeterias, libraries and classrooms as hunting grounds for innocent victims. During the 2018 legislative session, the General Assembly offered grants to schools for security initiatives. This year, I doubled down on this priority by allocating $69 million – $30,000 per school – for cameras, metal detectors, facial recognition software, or whichever school safety program local leaders want to fund and implement. By empowering administrators, principals and parents, we can keep our students and teachers safe. Through this allocation, we can prevent or stop a national tragedy.

I’m proud of what we accomplished in just a few months to champion our teachers, schools and students. While honored to receive awards and accolades for these promises kept, I truly believe that there is more we can do in the months and years to come.

We know that burdensome regulations and mandates make it difficult for teachers to actually teach.

We know that our students are tested too much, our educators are overworked, and our parents need more input and choice.

We know that one-size-fits-all really doesn’t fit anyone at all – especially when it comes to education.

In keeping with promises made on the campaign trail, we are continuing to review academic standards in our state.

Recently, the Georgia Department of Education sent out a survey, which is also posted on their website, to generate feedback on the current set of standards that is used to assess students in the classroom.

In the months to come, we will convene a Citizens Review Committee to analyze the feedback, a Working Committee of Teachers to offer their insight, and an Academic Review Committee to review recommendations that will then be considered by the State School Superintendent and State Board of Education.

This process, while laborious, will help us eliminate the remnants of Common Core and ensure that our students are given the best opportunity to learn, grow and succeed. We will do the heavy lifting now to ensure a better, brighter tomorrow. We will reject the status quo and put students first.

As we begin another school year, I want to wish our students, parents, educators and staff the very best. We are blessed to live in such a great state, and I am honored to serve as your governor.

The days ahead will be filled with incredible opportunities and challenges that build character. Work hard, stay focused and keep choppin’. Together, we will build a safer, stronger and more prosperous Georgia.

Gov. Brian Kemp is an Athens native and a University of Georgia graduate.

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