Key Georgia Electoral Contests Put K-12 Front and Center
Contrasts, Parallels Seen on K-12 Issues of National Scope
A range of volatile K-12 issues with national resonance—including governance, accountability, common standards, and funding—are center stage in the tight races for governor and state schools superintendent in Georgia.
In the gubernatorial campaign between state Sen. Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee, and incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia's hobbled and underfunded school funding system is firmly in the spotlight.
And the state chief's race between Democrat Valarie Wilson and Republican Richard Woods has also highlighted controversial topics like the Common Core State Standards, testing, and the federal role in public schools—in some cases, with the two superintendent-hopefuls sounding similar. (The current state chief, John Barge, sought the GOP nomination for governor, but lost.)
"I think the battle lines here are probably representative of national arguments," said Peter Smagorinsky, a professor in the college of education at the University of Georgia, in Athens.
New assessments aligned to the standards slated to be given next spring, along with the potentially rapid growth of charter schools under state control, also set up a very different atmosphere from 2010, when Gov. Deal won his first term and when the state claimed an eventually problematic federal Race to the Top grant.
"I don't think the work itself is any tougher. But the political environment is a lot tougher than it was four years ago," said Dana Rickman, the policy and research director at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan policy and advocacy group founded by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Economic Developers Association.
Clash on Funding
Sen. Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter—a Democrat who also served as Georgia governor—has pledged to drastically increase spending on public schools, and he has Ms. Wilson's backing. But the issue isn't free of complications for the senator when it comes to how to foot the bill.
Since 2003, the state has underfunded its Quality Basic Education formula by $8.4 billion, and Gov. Deal's tenure accounts for just under half that gap. During the past school year, according to an analysis by the Atlanta-based Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, 71 percent of districts cut their school calendars below the state's regular 180-day schedule, and 80 percent furloughed teachers as a result of budget constraints.
"State government has not been doing its job, period," Sen. Carter told a Sept. 15 forum of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, or PAGE, a nonunion group representing 84,000 K-12 employees.
His proposal is to create a K-12 spending fund separate from the rest of the state budget, which Sen. Carter believes will better allow the state to reach its "holy grail" of properly funded schools.
Ms. Wilson, the Democratic candidate for state chief, served as president of the Georgia School Boards Association and as board chairwoman of the 4,200-student Decatur city district. She said in an interview that any new funding formula must draw more on expertise from teachers and local administrators and less on people who have "never walked into these buildings." She also said that "it all comes back to resources."
However, Sen. Carter calls himself a fiscal conservative and doesn't want a state tax increase to reverse K-12 cuts, and hasn't specified where additional money for education would come from. Gov. Deal says that—combined with Sen. Carter's votes supporting the governor's education budgets, except the one for fiscal 2015 that boosted K-12 funding by $535 million—shows the senator is heavy on rhetoric but short on clear solutions.
"I want to hear what the source of the money is going to be," Gov. Deal said after the PAGE forum.
The sustainable solution to the state's funding woes, the governor said, is to revamp the state's funding formula to reflect advances in classroom instruction such as online learning. And he stressed that districts should continue to bear a lot of fiscal responsibility. "Some systems have managed their money better than others."
Mr. Woods, the GOP nominee for state superintendent and a former high school teacher and administrator, wants a complete audit of the state education department's budget. But he hasn't specified any programs he would cut out of the department's budget. Like Gov. Deal, he wants an overhaul of the state's funding formula.
Flexible, Local Control
One of Gov. Deal's key policy prescriptions is expanding the presence of charter schools. But as with Sen. Carter and school finance, the topic presents rhetorical challenges for the incumbent, this time regarding the issue of district authority.
In early September, the governor praised the Louisiana Recovery School District, a state-run district of charter schools that grew rapidly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. But he subsequently dismissed the idea that he simply wants to copy Louisiana's model, instead stressing that having more charters will directly provide better educational choices for parents and flexibility for schools.
The state charter schools commission—the subject of a controversial ballot initiative in 2012—has been very selective in the charter schools it allows to open, Gov. Deal noted, approving only one of 16 proposals last year.
But Sen. Carter has said that the governor's focus on charter schools doesn't help relieve pressure on schools short of cash, and he mocked the idea of trying "to pay someone ... with 'flexibility.' "
"We've become distracted by charter schools," he said.
And Ms. Wilson has suggested the prospect of rapid charter school growth—in particular the expansion of for-profit charter operators—will feed into the misleading narrative floated by "a sector of the reform world" that public schools are failing.
Mr. Woods said he likes how charter schools are conceived and developed, although he opposed the 2012 ballot initiative to grant the state commission power to approve charters.
"We may finally have a discussion around this tension of state versus local control," Ms. Rickman said.
Discontent With Washington
That tension affects many issues.
For example, Tanya Ditty, the Georgia state director of the conservative group Concerned Women for America and a common-core opponent, thinks the state's troubles with its federal Race to the Top grant, specifically the clashes over the common core's adoption and its implementation, have spurred broader distrust of the state board and the governor's office.
"My voice as a citizen comes through the legislature," said Ms. Ditty, adding that when it comes to Race to the Top, "how much money is the grant going to cost us long term? That's fiscal oversight. It's not political, it's public policy."
Like Ms. Ditty, Mr. Woods thinks the state school board should no longer be appointed, but elected. Both are touching on a sensitive issue across states. In the past two years, as discontent over the common core has spread, 10 states have approved laws changing how standards are adopted. The Georgia Senate passed a bill to roll back the standards during its most recent legislative session, but the legislation failed in the House.
Ms. Wilson and Mr. Woods are both eager to criticize federal K-12 policy as well. Mr. Woods, for example, is a common-core opponent, but he is also echoing American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan by calling for a two-year moratorium on using common-core-aligned test scores in teacher evaluations. The standards, together with federal K-12 policies, create a "straitjacket" on schools and teachers, in his view.
"I never saw common core as something by itself," Mr. Woods said in an interview. "We're still assuming that every child is the same, that every child is at the same level."
Unlike Mr. Woods, Ms. Wilson is a strong supporter of the common core and argues that the state, rather than vacillating as Gov. Deal has done by ordering a review of common-core classroom materials last year, should back the view of teachers and stick with it.
But she also says that the common core has been damaged because it has been "married" to evaluations that base half a teacher's score on student test results through Race to the Top. A better Race to the Top program, she said, would have simply identified innovative district-level approaches and provided them with a federal funding boost, instead of attaching strings and caveats to the grants. (There is a Race to the Top grant program for districts, although no Georgia district has won.)
Instead, these evaluations were added to the burdens schools already faced due to the No Child Left Behind Act's testing mandates, Ms. Wilson said. "Enough already. It's too much, too fast, without enough support."
Mr. Woods wants to reduce high-stakes testing beyond certain assessments in 5th and 8th grades, a stance at odds with both the NCLB and the state's NCLB waiver. Ms. Wilson wants a full audit of tests given to Georgia students but didn't say which ones she wants eliminated.
'It Stirs People'
Mr. Smagorinsky of the University of Georgia noted that the overlapping positions on taxes and testing, while rooted in different philosophies, make for an interesting political atmosphere. "There's some strange bedfellows. It's not a clean black-and-white division."
But some feel the politically charged atmosphere isn't just misguided but harmful for schools' progress.
Recent reviews of the common core by state officials, spurred by erroneous attacks that the federal government is the source of the standards, are a distraction from important ongoing work the state is overseeing, said Mr. Barge, the current state superintendent, elected in 2010. He pointed to examples such as how districts choose to evaluate teachers in subjects without statewide assessments. (Mr. Barge's deputy, Michael Buck, a common-core supporter, lost the Republican primary to Mr. Woods.)
"Everybody wants to talk about the standards, everybody wants to talk about assessment, whether or not they're something that would fall under their purview, because it's emotional," Mr. Barge said. "It stirs people."
Vol. 34, Issue 06, Pages 1, 20-22Published in Print: October 1, 2014, as Ga. Governor, Schools Chief Contests Heat Up