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Chief's Race Puts History To Test in Ga.

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Drew Lindsay LaGrange, Ga.

It is not yet sunup here, but Linda Schrenko is already broadcasting her message about the sorry state of Georgia's public schools.

The first Republican candidate for state superintendent of schools in more than a generation, Ms. Schrenko has made an hourlong drive from Columbus to LaGrange for a 7 A.M. appearance on WLAG radio's morning talk show.

Sipping instant coffee, her hair crushed under headphones, she tells listeners where Georgia students rank nationwide on the Scholastic Assessment Test: 49th on the mathematics section, 50th in verbal.

"I know we've always said, 'Thank God for Mississippi,"' she says. "Well, folks, Mississippi passed us a few years back."

The Outsider's Message

That is the message that Ms. Schrenko hopes will beat Werner Rogers, one of three incumbent state schools chiefs seeking re-election this year among the eight contested chiefs' races nationwide. (See related story.)

As a Republican, Ms. Schrenko is running against history. Since the Reconstruction era, Georgia voters have put only Democrats into the top eight positions in the state government, including schools chief.

But 1994 may be the year when G.O.P. standard-bearers breach Democratic strongholds across the country. Georgia Democrats predict they will retain their monopoly, but Republicans are hoping the same anti-incumbent anger that polls suggest is driving voters to G.O.P. candidates nationwide will put Ms. Schrenko in office and upset the state's political status quo.

On the air this morning in LaGrange, Ms. Schrenko returns frequently to the main theme of her campaign: that bureaucracy has grown as thick as late-summer kudzu during Mr. Rogers's tenure.

Administrative costs chew up nearly half of the state's education budget, she tells listeners, and dollars meant to help children never reach the classroom.

A teacher, counselor, and principal for 24 years, she says that schools should be controlled locally and that parents should be suspicious of anything that emanates from Atlanta or Washington. For example, she says, take the national goal to insure that all children are ready for school.

"Doesn't that sound good?" she asks. "Now think about it. By what method? Are we going to take your child at birth and put him in an institution and raise that child?"

Before leaving LaGrange, Ms. Schrenko will deliver variations on this message to home-schooling parents, a Democratic local superintendent, the head of a Christian academy, and the staff at the town's high school. At one stop, a reception and fund-raiser with the G.O.P. faithful, she takes dead aim at Mr. Rogers.

"If this were your business," she says, "and you were looking at 49th and 50th, I'd promise you that you would fire that man. And that's what I'm asking you to do: Fire Werner Rogers."

Republicans here and elsewhere who are banking on such anti-incumbent appeals got fresh encouragement from a poll released last week by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. It found that for the first time in 40 years, a majority of Americans polled said they were ready to vote for G.O.P. Congressional candidates.

In Georgia, where election ballots brand incumbents' names with an "I," Republicans are hoping that voter anger can shift the seemingly immovable tectonic plates under the state's political landscape.

"There's such animosity out there that if there's an I by the name, we've got a shot at it," said Yvonne White, a Republican Party official in LaGrange.

Most Democratic candidates will easily inoculate themselves against anti-incumbent fever by pointing to the state's booming economy, according to Andy Maddox, the political director of the Georgia Democratic Party.

Experience and Credibility

Superintendent Rogers, however, may have to work a little harder than other Democrats.

"People can see 49th or 50th in the state on the S.A.T.'s, and go, 'Well, we stink,"' Mr. Maddox said.

Actually, Ms. Schrenko's campaign stump speech about Georgia's S.A.T. scores is a little off. South Carolina students post the worst verbal scores in the country, leaving Georgia in 49th place on both sections of the test.

In an interview, Mr. Rogers argued that national rankings based on S.A.T. scores are misleading because only college-bound students take the tests. Other widely used assessments, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show Georgia in the middle of the pack among states and gaining fast, he said.

When talking to voters, Mr. Rogers said, he also highlights the state's new lottery, which he expects will improve Georgia schools by leaps and bounds. In the lottery's first year, proceeds totaled $360 million, which paid for 40,000 postsecondary scholarships, 12,000 slots for at-risk children in prekindergarten classes, and satellite dishes for nearly every school in the state.

As for Ms. Schrenko's talk of a bloated bureaucracy, Mr. Rogers said that he has slashed his department's personnel by 25 percent, to just over 900 employees. A newspaper's analysis of the department's budget showed only 10 cents of every dollar going to administration, he said.

Noting Ms. Schrenko's loss in a bid for county superintendent last year, Mr. Rogers said he will run on his leadership experience.

"She doesn't have any credibility among educators," he said, "And she doesn't even have a lot of credibility in her own community."

Playing Hardball

This is not a friendly contest.

Last month, Ms. Schrenko filed a complaint with the state ethics commission charging that local schools superintendents mailed invitations to a Rogers fund-raiser at public expense and used their positions to intimidate school employees into contributing.

Mr. Rogers said the complaint had no merit and would be dismissed by the commission.

"It's just a harassment technique to gain her some public notice because she's not getting it any other way," he said.

Questioned about the complaint, Ms. Schrenko admitted that she filed it in part to attract attention to her campaign.

News coverage has been so slim, she said, that she once told reporters she might have to throw a brick through a car windshield in downtown Atlanta to be noticed.

Still, she said, the ethics charges accurately reflect the old-boy Democratic network that locks parents and the average citizen out of education in Georgia. Since she filed the complaint, other teachers and school officials have made similar charges, she said.

Democrats "basically believe that they are untouchable and above the law," she said. "Anything is fair for them."

Wild Cards

Most political observers, noting that Mr. Rogers has a considerable name-recognition and fund-raising advantage, predicted that he would win in a walk. But they also pointed to several wild cards that could work against him.

The reality of many elections for offices like state superintendent is that most voters know nothing about the names on the ballot. In previous Georgia elections, this had little effect; faced with a host of strange names, many voters pulled a single lever to register their vote for a party's entire slate.

This year, a new state law eliminates the straight-ticket option. Voters will have to make their choices candidate by candidate.

This wrinkle could give Ms. Schrenko a boost. Both Democratic and Republican officials believe her gender will win her support from voters who know little about the race.

Also, "Republicans are generally more educated and affluent and are more likely to work their way through the ballot" to races like the one for superintendent, said Charles S. Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

The biggest wild card is the Christian Coalition, the conservative group founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, which nationwide is running the most aggressive voter-education and -registration drive in its history. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1994.)

National leaders of the officially nonpartisan coalition consider the Georgia chapter to be one of its most effective, and both Republicans and Democrats in the state call it a dominant force.

In the Georgia campaign's last weekend, the coalition will distribute nearly two million voter guides through churches to help people make their choices in all the races. The guides will list candidates' views on such issues as school prayer, outcomes-based education, school distribution of contraceptives, and local control of schools.

Role of Christian Coalition

Ms. Schrenko does not agree with the coalition's position on every issue. But she has listened to its views, and the coalition wants only to be heard, said Patrick Gartland, who heads the Georgia chapter.

"There's no perfect church, and there's no perfect candidate," he said. "The point is that we can come to the table and they'll listen to us."

Ms. Schrenko said she welcomes the support of coalition members, noting that many Christians are upset at the quality of public schools.

"I am Christian, I attend church, and I care very much about my religion and Christian values," she said. "But there are some things in their agenda that I don't agree with politically."

Mr. Rogers, meanwhile, is gambling that conservative Christians' embrace of Ms. Schrenko will turn off other voters. He declined to answer surveys from the coalition and similar groups.

"They're all loaded, they're all yes-no answers, with no chance to explain your position," he said.

"As more people find out that she is coming from the radical right," he said, "they're going to take a second look at her if they even took a first look at her."

Plenty of Georgians will get a look at Ms. Schrenko when she tours 51 cities in the state during the week before the election. That campaign swing will include stops at churches, but she said she will go anywhere she can find voters who share her view about the state of education in Georgia.

"I think I'm going to poll well everywhere," she said. "The message that I hear on the road is, 'We're tired of paying and getting nothing for our money."'

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