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Group founded by Michelle Rhee funds governor's field trip to New Orleans.


Update at 12:15: The Georgia House on Wednesday will vote on Gov. Nathan Deal’s top education initiatives, a last-minute change made in the Rules Committee. Senate Bill 133 and Senate Resolution 287 were added to today’s floor debate calendar this morning after failing to make it out of Rules on Tuesday. It was added to the list over Democrats’ objections.

Back to blog:

On the political front this morning, there's both good and bad news for Gov. Nathan Deal’s bruising campaign to win support for his Opportunity School District.

First, the AJC reports Deal ignored his own executive order banning most gifts from lobbyists and let a pro-charter schools group and top contributor to the state GOP, StudentsFirst, to underwrite for a legislative fact-finding trip to New Orleans last month. StudentsFirst was founded by former Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee.

This bending of the gift rules is just one indicator of how important Deal views his proposal to create a state district to absorb failing schools. When the House Education Committee voted Monday on the resolution and bill to create the district, the chairman allowed former committee members to vote, a practice that seemed to have fallen out of favor due to the obvious ethical questions.

Clearly, the governor is not taking any chances. Senate Bill 133 and Senate Resolution 287  was supposed to reach the House floor Friday, but now will be voted on today. The package has already passed the state Senate.

On the brighter side for the governor, DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond offered qualified support Tuesday for Deal’s proposal to seize control of failing schools, of which 25 DeKalb schools now qualify.

But Thurmond wants the plan to exclude failing schools showing improvement. If that change was made, DeKalb would only have two schools left on the failing list.

While it may make sense to exempt schools on an upward trajectory, an exemption for schools showing progress would dramatically reduce the statewide list of 137 failing schools, thus defeating the purpose of the state launching its own district.

(Speaking of the state creating its own district, I will post later today a look at the district the state now runs – the schools that serve 7,000 kids in detention centers around the state.)

There is a lot of debate already underway on the MyAJC story on StudentsFirst paying for Deal and company to visit schools in New Orleans. (The AJC sent three staffers on the trip, but picked up the costs.)

The AJC reported:

The two-day trip for Deal and other officials, estimated to cost $14,336, offers fresh evidence of how elastic Georgia’s ethics policies can be in the hands of the elected officials who make them.

Deal’s office claims the trip was allowed despite the governor’s own executive order that limits lobbyist gifts to $25. The order, signed his first day in office and intended to set an example for state government, places strict limits on lobbyist spending for executive branch staff. Food, travel and other expenses paid for by lobbyists are only allowed when they “permit the employee’s participation in official or professional duties” and even then, the order says, “the preferred practice is for agencies and not third parties to pay such expenses.”

But Deal looked to StudentsFirst, a California-based nonprofit, to pay for himself, five staffers, nine legislators, and State School Superintendent Richard Woods to got to the Crescent City and promote his proposed education reforms. StudentsFirst paid for the travel, the hotel, a charter bus and meals — including dinner at New Orleans’ famous Galatoire’s restaurant.

“The executive order governing us clearly allows for outside support of this type advocacy for official policy,” said spokesman Brian Robinson.

Robinson said Deal has never before relied on a lobbyist to pay for an out-of-town trip, and said the governor’s $6 million budget does not include money for this sort of travel.

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.