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Georgia GOP makes a push for conservative education bills

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On the final day of their session, Georgia Republicans muscled through a bill paving the way for restrictions on transgender kids playing school sports. Lawmakers passed a slew of conservative education priorities this year. But Georgia voters have been pushing in the other direction - voting for Joe Biden in 2020. WABE politics reporter Sam Gringlas tells us how this flurry of education bills may animate this year's midterms.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: For most of the day, legislation on trans kids in sports appeared to be dead. Then, just after midnight and the urging of Georgia's governor, Republican lawmakers shoved the provision into another bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALLY HARRELL: Isn't it true...

GEOFF DUNCAN: For what purpose does the senator from the 40th rise?

HARRELL: Parliamentary inquiry.

DUNCAN: State your inquiry.

HARRELL: Isn't it true that the anti-trans bill is attached to this bill that we have not had the favor of being able to even view?

DUNCAN: I'm certain each and every member is capable of making that decision.

GRINGLAS: It passed without debate. Democrats like Senator Sally Harrell were stunned.

HARRELL: I don't think you want to hear the words that I'm feeling right now.

GRINGLAS: She has a trans child.

HARRELL: And I'm going to have to tell my child that that's how our government works.

GRINGLAS: This session, Georgia lawmakers passed strict limits on how teachers talk about race, a bill that makes it easier for parents to complain about books in school libraries and a parents' bill of rights. Georgia's electorate may have become more diverse, but Republicans have reason to think their education bills will resonate, especially in the hotly contested campaign for governor. In the governor's race in Virginia last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin campaigned on unmasking kids and banning critical race theory. He won and became Virginia's first GOP governor in eight years.

CHUCK CLAY: If you don't hear that message loud and clear, Democrat or Republican, then you're missing the boat.

GRINGLAS: Chuck Clay, a Republican lobbyist in Georgia, says Republicans looked at Virginia and saw that talking about education helped them walk a fine line - pleasing the party's base and appealing to swing voters. Now, recent Democratic polling suggests older voters, not parents, may have been the real swing voters in Virginia. Still, an internal Democratic Governors Association report cited education as the top issue motivating voters who went for Biden in 2020 and Republican Glenn Youngkin a year later.

CLINT DIXON: Education issues are going to be a big factor in whether we see a red wave in '22 in Georgia or a continued blue wave.

GRINGLAS: Georgia Republican Senator Clint Dixon says he was listening to his constituents when he wrote a bill allowing parents to opt their kids out of school mask mandates.

DIXON: I tell some of my Senate colleagues their primary issue is election integrity. In Gwinnett, it's education. I've got parents that voted for my opponent last time that plan on voting for me now because I've taken up these issues that they care about.

GRINGLAS: There's also the risk that Republicans go too far. Even conservative governors in Utah and Indiana vetoed bills restricting trans kids from playing school sports. Karen Watkins, a Democrat on the Gwinnett County School Board in Georgia, says these Republican bills purposefully lean into wedge issues like race and gender.

KAREN WATKINS: I can't see anything in any of these bills built on fear that would actually help the children.

GRINGLAS: When Watkins won her seat in 2020, she was among the first Black women to sit on the board. Watkins says these divisive bills and the politics around them just ratchet up the temperature.

WATKINS: It's just troubling to me because education should be the thing that brings us together, not divides us, because that's one thing we all have in common. It's the center of our community.

GRINGLAS: Watkins says that quality has eroded, and she's worried it could soon be too late to restore it. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.