They don’t agree on whether Georgia is doing well with its schools, but all the candidates for the state’s top education job say the same thing about money: There isn’t enough.
Even the two Republicans say funding for schools is among their top priorities. Both have unrivaled experience among the five hopefuls, having served in the job already. The experience allows them to argue that they have the knowledge to get things done, but it also puts them in the position of defending the state Department of Education’s performance under their leadership.
For the first time this year, the state closed a gap in school funding that was opened in 2003 and grew to over $1 billion in the late 2000s. Gov. Sonny Perdue called them “austerity” cuts. Gov. Nathan Deal banished that word from state documents, even as he maintained a gap between what schools were owed under the state’s funding formula and what state leaders were willing to give them. As the economy improved, Deal added more money and finally closed the gap this year. But the candidates, including incumbent Richard Woods, a Republican, and his challenger in the May 22 primary, John Barge, who was state superintendent immediately before Woods, say the years of budget shortfalls have had a lingering effect, most noticeably on teacher pay.
Positioning themselves as advocates for teachers — the voters most likely to watch this race — is a wise political move, since the state superintendent election is a down-ballot affair. There are a lot of races competing for the public’s attention, said Mike Hassinger, a political consultant who has struggled to create interest in “extremely important and extremely boring” races for, say, a judgeship.
At least in a position like that, there is a question of the ultimate power — the authority to sentence someone to die. The education “narrative,” despite its importance for 1.8 million students, is dull by comparison, he said. Under-funded schools, overworked teachers, “and that stuff hasn’t changed for two generations.”
Also, the actual authority of the superintendent’s office has eroded since Linda Schrenko went to prison. The superintendent from the 1990s and early 2000s was convicted of embezzling and money laundering. Since then, a succession of governors, Democrat and Republican, have taken authority from the superintendent with lawmakers’ help.
“There’s less and less power in that office,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta. “The governor has really become, for all practical purposes, the guiding force on education policy.” Lawmakers have even talked about making the office appointed rather than elected, said Millar, who serves on the Senate Education and Youth Committee.
One of the three Democrats acknowledges this: Otha Thornton was part of the opposition to Deal’s proposed 2016 constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District. Had voters approved the referendum, the governor would have had authority to take over schools his office deemed to be “chronically failing.” Deal came back last year with a proposal that accomplished something similar without requiring a change to the constitution. At his urging, the General Assembly established a “turnaround” office that selects schools from among the state’s lowest-performing and works with local school districts to improve them. If they don’t get better, the districts can lose control. The Chief Turnaround Officer is appointed by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor.
“It’s really deceptive,” said Thornton, a former president of the National PTA. The state superintendent already has an office of school improvement that works with under-performing schools, he noted. “That’s what the state superintendent of schools is supposed to be doing, so that’s crossing constitutional lines.”
Like all the candidates, Thornton, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, believes the schools still don’t have adequate funding, though they are, on paper, fully funded. The state calculates what it will give local districts using a formula from the 1980s. The $10 billion budget hasn’t kept up with the cost of living, and it doesn’t account for the cost of technologies that didn’t yet exist when it was established, the candidates argue.
“We have many educators who live below the poverty line,” Sid Chapman, a former high school social studies teacher, said in a recent televised debate. He is now the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, the state’s second-largest teacher-advocacy group. It played a big role in the defeat of the Opportunity School District when Chapman persuaded parent group, the National Education Association, to fund the opposition.
Sam Mosteller, a pastor and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter in Georgia, also listed teacher pay and working conditions among his top issues, along with illiteracy in the third grade. He said he wants to open reading centers in most school systems. He didn’t say how he’d pay for it, but he did say he’d work with corporations to pay for more counselors and other social workers to confront a hot topic these days: gun violence in schools. He and the other two Democrats thought arming teachers was unwise.
Mosteller, who was a military police major in the Army, said he learned about the psychology that leads to violence. Children who are bullied need help, he said, but it’s “foolish” to put a gun in a classroom. Children will look for it, he said at a televised debate. “The next thing you know they’ll either shoot themselves, shoot the teacher or some accident will happen. I think it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Both Republican candidates said they would leave it to local officials to decide how to secure their schools.Neither openly opposed arming teachers, something state law allows, though Barge said he’d prefer to see military veterans and retired police officer recruited as armed volunteers.
Like the Democrats, Woods said he would push to increase funding. He said the state formula hasn’t accounted for the rising cost of operating school buses.
Barge said the same, and added that the state had pushed a growing share of health-care costs onto the locals. He said he has been acutely aware of that as superintendent of the tiny McIntosh County school system on the Georgia coast, the position he took after leaving the state superintendent’s office to run an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2014. He said he would use his relationships with lawmakers to lobby for more money for schools.
All the candidates will have to resort to such relationships.
After all, the governor sets the education department’s budget.