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Georgia governor faces another perilous education fight in 2017

As Gov. Nathan Deal prepares for another all-out fight over his education legacy, he’ll have in mind a bit of gubernatorial history: Nearly every one of his predecessors for decades has been tripped up by bruising fights over school policy.

The Republican made overhauling the school funding formula the centerpiece of his 2014 re-election campaign before pivoting the next year to a contentious plan to empower the state to take control of failing schools.

With another legislative session nearing, he’s preparing a “Plan B” after his proposed constitutional amendment to take over failing schools was trounced at the polls in November. He could also revisit his plans to remake how k-12 schools are funded.

But he could face an even tougher road than before. A pair of controversial vetoes last year deepened the divide between him and GOP lawmakers, and Democrats emboldened by the defeat of his school takeover plan could have less incentive to work with him.

And as the 2018 governor’s race nears, Deal could have a tougher time keeping potential candidates for his job and other offices focused on his top priority during the legislative session that begins Jan. 9.

A drawn-out battle over education policy is all-too-familiar for past governors, and each has the scars to show for it. That’s because nearly every one has cast himself as the “education governor” — largely because they can’t afford not to do so.

“It makes sense that they bill themselves that way since the bulk of the state budget goes to education, so education takes a front-row seat in whatever they do,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

The governor, too, said he’s had little choice but to focus on his failing school initiative and other education overhauls that he said would eventually improve the state’s graduation rates and bolster its workforce.

“Would I have preferred to do something else? Obviously. I’m in my last term as governor. I didn’t have to take this on,” he said of his proposed constitutional amendment. “But I think there’s a responsibility when you’re elected to be the governor of this state to focus on the problems that your state has.”

An eternal ‘difficult’ battle

A look at the past two decades of education policy in Georgia tells the tale.

Before the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship for college and pre-kindergarten education became his signature achievement, Zell Miller was at the center of bruising debates over gambling and education funding.

Sonny Perdue’s eight-year tenure was rocked by debates over the deep “austerity” cuts to k-12 funding he ordered during a prolonged economic downturn.

And educator groups fiercely opposed Roy Barnes’ plan to eliminate tenure for newly hired teachers and his proposal to require students to pass tests before advancing to the next grade, opposition that likely contributed to his 2002 defeat.

“Education is difficult. But the primary mission any governor has is education,” Barnes said. “Just think about it: Governors can’t deal with the national debt. They can’t deal with Social Security. We’re at peace with Alabama right now. Education is the primary duty of every governor, though we may have different views on what needs to be done.”

Deal has had a particularly bitter battle over education policy, starting with cuts he pushed through to HOPE scholarship awards for all but the top students, as well as stricter requirements for some recipients of technical college grants, that he said were needed to ensure the scholarship’s long-term viability.

And he came under fire during the 2014 campaign from his Democratic opponent, Jason Carter, who vowed to boost education funding and pushed to set up a separate schools budget — what he called a “trust fund for education” — protected from tinkering lawmakers.

During that campaign, Deal shifted his focus to the school funding calculus, saying the formula set in 1985 was badly in need of an update. The state budgeted nearly $9 billion for education this year — more than one-third of the state budget — but the state is spending $166 million less than the funding formula requires.

He largely sidestepped that debate after his election, though, and it’s uncertain how he’ll revive the fight. Rejiggering the formula would likely give school districts more flexibility to spend state funding, and Deal’s administration has been a vocal critic of districts that he says misused state dollars.

Deal has telegraphed that he’ll devote significant attention to another education priority, with some Republicans already building consensus behind a new measure that would give the state more leeway to let students transfer from struggling schools.

“If we don’t give these students — and most of them are minority students — if we don’t give them a chance for a good education, then they are simply going to continue to fall further and further behind,” Deal said. “Everyone ought to be concerned about that.”

‘They’ll come after you’

The fate of his education plan could turn on what bargaining chips the governor could use to seal the deal.

He has the first and last say on Georgia’s budget, and lawmakers have generally stuck to the vast majority of his blueprint. He can dangle judgeships, board seats and other coveted appointments in front of wavering lawmakers. And, perhaps as importantly, he will decide the fate of one of the Georgia GOP’s top priorities.

While Deal has signaled repeatedly that he has no appetite for “religious liberty” legislation, he hasn’t ruled out a revival of another measure he vetoed last year that would legalize firearms at all public colleges in Georgia. The governor nixed that legislation only after lawmakers defied his personal request for changes that would make exceptions to the expansion.

Though they only control about one-third of legislative seats, Democrats hope to play a pivotal role in the education debate, particularly if Republicans abandon the governor’s proposals. State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said her party will fight to increase overall funding at every turn — and give school districts more leeway to spend it.

“Our school funding levels just aren’t adequate right now,” she said. “The money needs to be spent more effectively on more teachers in the classroom and more experiences for the students. And there needs to be more flexibility for the school districts to decide how to use it.”

Whatever path Deal chooses, it is likely to play a key role in defining his legacy. Bullock, the UGA political scientist, remembers traveling across the state in the early 2000s to speak about the vagaries of Georgia politics. Not once, he said, does he recall running into a public school teacher with kind words for Barnes over his education plan.

“There’s no easy answer. There are organized groups, teachers unions — and every legislator’s district has a large number of public school teachers who are well-educated and active,” Bullock said. “Politicians know they need to be careful what they do and say about education policy — because they’ll come after you.”

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