Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, who announced his candidacy for governor earlier this month, will take into the race a record he’s had only limited power to construct.
The state’s graduation rate and test scores are up slightly, but the increases aren’t easily tied to policy. The superintendent has been a supporter of Common Core, a new set of national academic standards, but the initiative was adopted by the state before he took office. He’s trying to put his stamp on how parts of a $400 million federal grant will be spent, but the federal government has balked at some of the changes he’s proposed.
Still, some groups that closely follow education policy and funding offered praise for Barge’s record over three years, saying he’s inclusive and has found a way to advance education in tough financial times. Others wonder if his lack of political expertise has hindered him.
“Superintendent John Barge has been an ardent supporter of the importance of providing a quality public education for every child in Georgia,” said Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “He has maintained an open door policy and included practitioners in programs and policy evaluations throughout his tenure.”
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the superintendent is respected. “When we got Dr. Barge, educators believed they were getting an experienced educator,” said Callahan, emphasizing that PAGE does not endorse or make campaign contributions to candidates. “But the flip side is we are getting an inexperienced politician.”
For his part, Barge, a Republican, is hoping to turn political inexperience into a campaign asset. When the 46-year-old Barge announced his candidacy, he noted his work as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. And he took a shot at Deal as a long-time politician.
Deal hasn’t been shy in criticizing the superintendent. The governor’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Barge is “essentially running on a Democratic platform of more spending and higher taxes.”
Barge disputes that, saying his call for more spending on public education is not a call for higher taxes. He said he’d spend less on state government, but he did not offer details.
Last year alone, the state gave school districts $1 billion less than the state’s funding formula called for them to receive. Barge has been critical of the state’s refusal to provide districts with more money.
Republicans control the Legislature, and Barge angered many of them by opposing a constitutional amendment that reaffirmed the state’s authority to create charter schools.
Education groups have argued that the amendment, which voters approved last year, dilutes the authority of local school boards. Barge said the state should provide more funding for traditional public schools before opening a new avenue for the creation of charter schools.
The amendment’s supporters said charter schools — public schools granted organizational flexibility in exchange for a commitment to meet specific education goals — serve as an important alternative for parents whose children attend poor traditional public schools.
Barge had tried to minimize the political fallout from opposing the amendment by meeting with Deal individually before publicly announcing his opposition. But the two ended up clashing anyway.
State Sen. Fran Millar, the Dunwoody Republican who served as chairman of the Senate’s Education and Youth Committee for much of Barge’s tenure as superintendent, said he’s disappointed Barge has decided to challenge Deal.
“He certainly was not politically savvy,” Millar said of Barge.
Millar did praise Barge as a “very nice man” who has tried to do what he thinks is best for public education. The state senator, however, disputes Barge’s campaign thesis that public education has been starved for resources.
He said public education has not been cut as deeply as other areas.
But that wasn’t because of Barge, Millar said. “That’s because of the priorities of the Legislature and the governor,” he said.
Using a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind rules, Barge’s staff at the Department of Education created a new grading system for schools and districts and a new evaluation system for teachers and principals.
The new teacher and principal evaluation system does not include a merit pay component, as was promised in 2010 when Georgia applied for the $400 million Race to the Top federal grant. The U.S. Department of Education, which administers the grant, has threatened to withhold a $10 million portion, saying Georgia is not following through with what it promised.
Barge said he wants to see the new measurement system in place before merit pay is tied to it.
The U.S. Department of Education has placed a $30 million portion of Georgia’s grant on high-risk status because Barge wants to use surveys of teacher and principal performance as informational rather than as a more formal part of the evaluation, as Georgia promised in its grant application.
Despite the federal government’s reaction to changes in the teacher and principal evaluation system, Barge points with pride to it and to the new school and district grading system.
That new system, called the College and Career Ready Performance Index, assigns schools and districts grades on a 0 to 110-point scale. Educators have praised it as a more fair and comprehensive grading system than the one tied to No Child Left Behind.
Millar said Barge deserves some credit for the new teacher evaluation system, but he noted that it, like some other initiatives, got their start before Barge came into office.
“I don’t look at it as he came in with a broad-based agenda where I say he did this, he did that,” Millar said.
Barge said he has attempted to help Georgia honor commitments it made to the federal government while at the same time making changes that fit with what he and the state’s educators believe will improve public education.
He was not superintendent when Georgia applied for Race to the Top funds. In fact, as a candidate for superintendent, he had been skeptical of the grant program, saying the federal government would attach strings to the money.
Once in office, Barge said he came to realize the state could not afford to spurn such a big pot of money at a time when the Legislature was not providing districts with all of the money they were expecting.
“I didn’t realize how poorly education was being funded,” he said.
Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said school districts have had to scramble to make up for what they have not received from the state.
“We have seen some steps forward in student achievement,” Suggs said, noting the rise in SAT and ACT scores and the slowly rising graduation rate. “The question is, ‘What could have been done? What could have been accomplished?’”Shonda Shaw, principal at Elite Scholars Academy in Morrow, which was recently honored by the state Department of Education for academic excellence, said funding cuts have been tough for school districts. But there has been progress in education, she said.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.
Barge said he’s proud of his record as superintendent and is running for governor because he believes public education needs more than it has gotten from Deal.
“I do not see the future of public education flourishing with this administration,” he said.