A season of punishment has begun for state School Superintendent John Barge – payback for his opposition to last year’s ballot measure restoring the state’s power to create charter schools throughout Georgia.
But at the state Capitol, the first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club. Those throwing the punches don’t want to appear vindictive. Those on the receiving end know that things could get ever so much worse.
This week, it was Barge’s duty to go before state lawmakers to explain educational spending in Gov. Nathan Deal’s $19.8 billion proposed budget for next year. Unless you had the document in front of you, you would never have known that Deal had shrunk Barge’s central office budget from $87 million to $27 million.
The governor had really, really liked that charter school measure.
But rather than point to his bruises, Barge rained praise on Deal for increased spending on classrooms. “I want to thank the governor for investing in education,” the superintendent told members of the House and Senate budget committees. Not just once. Not just twice. He and a deputy uttered that phrase – or a variation of it – 10 times over 45 minutes.
Yes, Barge admitted, some of the cuts to his administrative staff will hurt. “We will continue to make our bricks, even though we have less hay to make them with. It just means it may take us a little longer to build that pyramid,” Barge said. Though perhaps a metaphor that draws on Israelites, slave labor and Egyptian overseers wasn’t the best choice.
In terms of administrative costs, the Department of Education endured the same 3 percent budget cuts endured by other state departments and agencies.
And to be fair, much of that $60 million removed from Barge’s central office budget was shifted to other pots in the state education budget – perhaps to make them easier to remove from Barge’s control at a later date. All spending on charter schools, for instance. The state education budget now includes funding for a Charter School Commission independent of the school superintendent.
The most obvious evidence that the governor has placed Barge in time-out: The Department of Education had been splitting the costs with Georgia Public Broadcasting for a program in which teachers can access math and science material – created by the Discovery Channel – through the GPB network.
Next year, Barge’s budget will be docked for the entire cost – nearly $1 million. But GPB will be given total control of the money.
After his session with state lawmakers, Barge declined to admit that he’d just visited the woodshed. “I don’t want to take any kind of assumptions as to what is what. I know that budget cuts could be worse,” the school superintendent said. “And the budget is obviously reflective of what’s most important – and that’s students in the state of Georgia and their education.”
The translation from Capitol-speak into English: “Thank you, sir – may I have another?”
But seriously, Georgia has an awkward approach to education. The governor has control over most spending, and the school superintendent is in charge of the bureaucracy that your tax dollars pay for. Both are elected statewide, by slightly different sets of voters.
Yet there are signs that Barge has become more cautious about airing differences with the governor in anticipation of his re-election in 2014.
During his state-of-the-state address last week, the most overlooked portion of Deal’s speech dealt with state intervention in cases in which local school systems are faced with the loss of accreditation. Right now, the state can inject itself into local educational matters only when adults – i.e., school board members – are behaving badly.
“It is somewhat ironic that the loss of accreditation can only be based on governance issues and not on substandard academic progress of the school system,” the governor said. “Unless this is addressed by state legislation, we will continue to have thousands of Georgia’s children trapped in under-performing schools through no fault of their own.”
Last year’s fight over charter schools centered on local control – whether the state could impose charter schools on local boards of education that don’t want them. Charter school proponents won.
But giving state government the power to intervene in school systems that are simply poor-performing would be a far more significant extension of authority than last year’s charter school measure. When asked about it, Barge was careful.
“We would need to discuss what that intervention may look like. And who is intervening, and how,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider