A wave that Georgia Republicans have feared for the better part of a year is approaching the shoreline.
This month, thousands of public school teachers across the state were formally notified that their services were no longer required. They will be joined in the unemployment line by thousands of others — school clerks, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.
Roughly 3,500 of the state’s 118,000 public school teachers are at risk, according to one estimate — although the state Department of Education says an exact count won’t be available until this fall.
State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond says his department has prepared for 8,000 school-related applications for jobless benefits this summer.
Even more teachers and school workers could lose their jobs next year, as federal stimulus funding is depleted.
Spread across the state’s 180 school systems, it’s hard to judge the economic impact of what education leaders are calling the largest reduction in the teacher work force since the Great Depression.
But politically, teacher unrest could be devastating for Republicans.
At minimum, the layoffs could shatter confidence in suburban counties rich in GOP votes. So far, Cobb County has produced the most applications for unemployment benefits from teachers.
Total school layoffs could rival the combined losses from the closing of a Brown & Williamson tobacco plant in Macon in ‘04, the Ford auto plant in Hapeville in ‘06, plus the General Motors plant in Doraville in ‘08.
“But laying teachers off has a totally different kind of psychology associated with it. It’s hard for the public to wrap their minds around it,” Thurmond said.
The labor commissioner has begun working with the state’s three largest teacher organizations — the Georgia Association of Educators, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Georgia Federation of Teachers — to organize workshops for the new jobless.
No doubt this is part of his job. But the fact that Thurmond is also a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate is hardly something to overlook.
Last week’s decision by two-term state School Superintendent Kathy Cox to resign — she’s headed for a job at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit — may have made the GOP dilemma worse.
With her departure, Republicans are deprived of a secure platform from which to argue that, while painful, the trimming of $500 million for education from this year’s state budget was fiscally responsible.
The two remaining Republicans in the contest, Bartow County school administrator John Barge and Irwin County administrator Richard Woods, question several of Cox’s curriculum policies — and Gov. Sonny Perdue’s pursuit of federal school reform grants.
The governor will have to appoint a replacement for Cox, whose term extends for another six months. We’re told that the governor might consider someone who’s willing to run as an independent candidate in November.
Republicans have also been unnerved by the last-minute entry of 67-year-old Joe Martin, a former president of the Atlanta school board, into the Democratic contest for school superintendent.
Two other Democrats, Beth Farokhi of Marietta and Brian Westlake of Decatur, have been campaigning since last year but are both newcomers. Martin ran for the post in 1998, losing to GOP incumbent Linda Schrenko.
More important, Martin has been an influential figure in education since the 1980s and represented school systems across the state in a fight — abandoned in 2008 — for increased funding.
Martin’s candidacy “puts a whole new dynamic” in the race, said Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
The political importance of the race for state school superintendent lies in its role as handmaiden to the governor’s contest.
The irony of the situation is lost on no one. In 2002, Perdue defeated Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes in large part on the issue of job security for teachers.
Eight years later, all seven Democrats running for governor — including Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin and former National Guard commander David Poythress — are in hot pursuit of the education vote.
But at a Savannah meeting of educators on Thursday, it was Barnes, seeking a return to his old job, who focused most sharply on the issue of funding and teacher layoffs.
To raise the money necessary to end furloughs and layoffs, the former governor said he would ask the Legislature to suspend all tax exemptions passed during Perdue’s eight years in office.
“I’ll close the Governor’s Mansion. I’ll close the Capitol,” Barnes said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
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