The Next Education Governor

Education a focus of Georgia governor’s race, but views vary widely

A state schools superintendent, a small-town mayor and the husbands of two teachers are in the race for governor. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that education has emerged as the focal point of their campaigns.

Gov. Nathan Deal and his rivals each agree on an abiding principle that flows through each of their campaigns: Education is economic development. Just how to harness that theory, though, has provoked starkly different views of government’s role in education between Deal and his GOP challengers in next week’s election.

The governor worries that Georgia students are losing ground to global peers, but he believes his policies along with a new influx of cash will boost graduation rates and test scores. State Schools Superintendent John Barge and former Dalton Mayor David Pennington see wasted opportunities and a government that often gets in the way.

Tuesday’s victor will face Democrat Jason Carter, an Atlanta state senator who aims to be viewed as the education candidate. Carter, whose wife is an Atlanta Public Schools teacher, has sought to lure teachers and parents with a promise of a separate education fund to protect school budgets from political tinkering.

‘A real education governor’

Barge had long been on the outs with Deal when he jumped in the race in August. They frequently fought over the past three years, tussling over graduation rates, the Education Department’s budget and — most notably — a 2012 ballot measure that clarified Georgia’s power to create charter schools. Deal supported that move and Barge opposed it.

There’s also no love lost between Deal and Pennington, who stepped down as Dalton’s mayor in March to focus on his bid for higher office. Pennington has tried to carve out an ideological base to Deal’s right by advocating for more tax cuts and local control of schools.

The two GOP challengers take starkly different tacks when it comes to taking on the incumbent. Barge says his long background in education — he was a teacher, a principal and an administrator before landing the state superintendent job — will inevitably lead to a greater focus on schools.

“It will come as no surprise that I will make education the No. 1 priority,” Barge said. “Many governors have said this in the past, but this time Georgians will have the opportunity to elect a real education governor. We owe it to our students and our parents.”

He’s eager to dig into the minutia, vowing to overhaul high school course work to add a financial literacy requirement and no longer require some graduates to take advanced math classes. But he has yet to outline how he would pursue some of his broader promises, such as a pledge to increase school funding without raising taxes.

Pennington’s education platform focuses on the promise of more local control for school districts and his opposition to Common Core, a set of guidelines that have earned the scorn of some conservatives who fear they amount to a federal takeover attempt of education programs.

The standards were initially embraced by Deal and other Republican leaders — Sonny Perdue helped craft them when he was Georgia’s governor — but Deal in August ordered a review of the program amid growing backlash. Pennington boasts at campaign stops that it would have taken him a bare three seconds to reject the idea.

“You can trace the decline of public education in this country and the state first with the centralization of the power and control in the state capitals and now into Washington,” said Pennington, who adds: “Centralized power doesn’t work. That’s why the Soviet Union fell apart.”

Seizing the middle ground

The governor has sought to seize the middle ground on education. On the campaign trail, he often reminds voters that his wife, Sandra, was a longtime public school teacher who visited all 159 counties last year to encourage reading. He also vows to rewrite Georgia’s decades-old school funding formula if given a second term.

His biggest education initiative this year was a move to plow more than $300 million in extra funding into k-12 education. Deal’s opponents see it as election-year politicking, though the governor said the additional money is a sign that schools will increasingly enjoy the fruits of Georgia’s improving economy.

“These funds will provide our local school systems with the resources and flexibility to address the most critical needs of their students and teachers,” he said.

His office estimates that by 2020 more than 60 percent of job openings in Georgia will require some form of education beyond a high school degree, and he backs initiatives to boost training in the growing fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Yet he faced a backlash from teachers and other state staffers over his administration’s controversial decision to go with a single insurer to manage health care for 650,000 public employees and their families. His administration ultimately used $100 million in the state health plan’s reserve fund to offer more options in response to the outcry.

The changes have failed to soothe many of his critics. A Facebook group for educators that sprung up to fight the changes has more recently become an anti-Deal sounding board, with frequent reminders for teachers and their families to cast ballots early or head to the polls Tuesday.

That’s the very crowd Barge is hoping to rally to stand a chance at forcing a runoff against Deal, who leads in the polls and has an overwhelming fundraising advantage. While Pennington has carved out an ideological base to Deal’s right, the superintendent’s campaign is fine-tuned to attract educators — a bloc that typically supports Democrats.

“Educators are a huge piece of our support,” Barge said. “There are some Republican voters that we’re never going to win over. I know it’s an uphill battle and we just need to continue getting our message out. But there’s a lot of support out there.”

By Greg Bluestein
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution