Next to the economy, no issue is likely to be as decisive in this fall’s race for governor as education. Or as complicated.
Fans of Democrat Roy Barnes will list the topic of school funding as the former governor’s top advantage in the campaign.
And most Republicans will concede that cuts to education — forced upon them by the Great Recession, they argue — pose the chief weakness of a GOP ticket dominated by former Congressman Nathan Deal.
Republicans are slightly awkward in their discussions of education, bedeviled by conflicts in philosophy.
The same GOP activists who dominate suburban Atlanta politics — with a party platform that lauds home schooling and vouchers — have built the strongest public school systems in the state. And guard them jealously.
Then there’s the matter of money for education. And where, in this economic emergency, it should come from.
This week, a jubilant Gov. Sonny Perdue basked in the news from Washington that Georgia had “won” $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds for school reform.
In a desert of a year marked by teacher furloughs and layoffs, larger classrooms, and shorter school calendars, this was a cool drink of water.
But after thanking the proper state school officials, the governor’s first message was directed at two statewide candidates in his own party — though he didn’t mention them by name.
Perdue, who this spring ordered up state-funded attorneys to battle Washington’s encroachment into health care, declared the fresh education funds from the Obama administration a different matter altogether.
“I want to say once again, for many who have feared that this is federal intrusion, the feds gave us no rules,” the governor said. “They said, ‘you put together a plan that you can implement.’ ”
One of Perdue’s targets was John Barge, the Republican nominee for state school superintendent, who had declared that Race to the Top money wasn’t worth the strings that came with it.
On Tuesday, Barge quickly promised that — if elected in November — he would not give the $400 million back. “I will faithfully administer the programs and policies set by the governor and the General Assembly,” Barge declared.
Then there’s the case of Deal, the Republican nominee for governor and son of two public school educators.
During the runoff, like Barge, the former Gainesville congressman briefly declined to endorse Perdue’s dogged pursuit of Race to the Top money — as a matter of principle. Deal quickly recanted.
But a certain skepticism crept back into his language as Deal congratulated Perdue on his financial victory on Tuesday. The GOP nominee for governor declared that, if elected, he would “conduct reviews of this program so that it achieves its original goals and remains an autonomous function of the state of Georgia.”
The shouting over federal money isn’t over. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program was part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed by Congress. Deal voted against it — a fact that will surely be pointed out by the Barnes campaign.
The Republican dance over Race to the Top cash has nearly overshadowed what should have been one of the most dramatic story lines of the 2010 race for governor — the rapprochement between former Gov. Barnes and the teachers who deserted him eight years ago.
The Democrat’s non-stop apologies paid off last week, when the 43,000-member Georgia Association of Educators — the largest teachers group that makes political endorsements — placed itself in Barnes’ camp. Public funding for education was the primary issue, said GAE President Calvine Rollins of Bainbridge.
Deal, the only GOP candidate for governor to interview for the GAE endorsement, admits that he hasn’t quite fleshed out his education policy — and Rollins said the lack of details weighed against the former congressman.
The GAE president declined to make public the position papers submitted by the two candidates. But policy statements by Barnes and Deal, posted on the website of another group, the larger Professional Association of Georgia Educators, bear out Rollins’ contention.
Even so, the Deal campaign scoffed at Rollins’ repeated declarations that the endorsement of Barnes was non-partisan. “They endorsed all Democrats,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. Including Joe Martin, the Democratic candidate for state school superintendent.
The point is legitimate, and essential to Barnes. The GAE — until it declared itself neutral in 2002 — was a reliable member of the Democratic infrastructure.
At least for this year, it has returned to the fold, allowing the former governor to begin his general election campaign with the traditional Democratic base intact.
Whether teachers in Georgia’s classrooms will follow is a topic for another day.