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Karen Handel assails Jon Ossoff for posh private school and out-of-state universities. Is that a smart strategy?

I get notifications from both the Democrat and Republican in the heated 6th district U.S. congressional race, where education has not been a major theme.  But an email this morning on behalf of GOP candidate Karen Handel from the National Republican Congressional Committee intrigued me because it dings Democrat Jon Ossoff for attending the well-regarded Atlanta private school, Paideia; he was in the class of 2005.

Here is what the note said about his education:

Jon Ossoff has a brand new ad, and his theme remains consistent (unlike his message).

Hypocritical statement #1: “How do we keep metro Atlanta’s economy growing?...our universities and tech schools train our talented young people.”

Ossoff attended a fancy private school growing up, went to Washington DC for college, and got his Masters in London.

This GOP response strikes me as risky. While it criticizes Ossoff for attending a "fancy private school" and out-of-state universities, it also draws attention to his impressive education credentials. (Ossoff has an undergrad degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from the London School of Economics.)

It underscores something Handel has played down – her lack of a college education. I wrote about this issue in 2009 when Handel unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for governor. At the time, incumbent Casey Cagle, who also lacks a college degree, was seeking a second term, which voters granted him.

I asked a question then that may be relevant today: Does a college degree matter?

What I wrote:

So far, a lack of a college degree hasn't hampered Karen Handel, who was elected secretary of state in 2006. Nor has it stood in the way of Casey Cagle, who won the lieutenant governorship that same year.

If the pair succeeds this year, Georgia will be led by two people whose formal education attainment ended at high school, an unenviable status according to critics who contend it delivers the wrong message in a state long labeled an educational laggard.

There is no legal requirement that the governor hold a college degree, although you can't get a job as a teacher in Georgia without one. A task force appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue --- who earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia --- even briefly considered making a college degree a qualification to serve on a local school board.

A generation or two ago, the book smarts vs. street smarts debate wasn't as pitched. In 1948, for example, Americans elected a president without a college degree, Harry Truman. However, every president since then has held at least an undergraduate degree. Even Truman --- whose poor eyesight kept him out of West Point --- attended both college and law school but earned a degree from neither.


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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.