Democrats in Georgia Offer Interesting Election Picture on Education

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 21, 2014 6 min read
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The California race for state superintendent featuring incumbent Superintendent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck shows that Democrats can have high-profile and internal political battles just like Republicans. And it’s not the only race like that in education.

There’s a similar situation going on in the race for Georgia K-12 chief, where the current office-holder, John Barge, decided to run for governor instead of re-election, but lost in the state GOP primary. Two Democrats, Alisha Morgan, a state representative, and Valarie Wilson, a former president of the state school boards association, were the top two vote-getters in the primary earlier this year and face a runoff election against each other July 22. (Wilson or Morgan will face either Michael Buck, the state’s deputy superintendent, or Richard Woods, a former teacher and school administrator. Buck and Woods will also have a July 22 runoff.)

I wanted to highlight Democrats in the Peach State, which is the eighth-largest state in the country in terms of public school enrollment, not just because of disparities between those two Democratic candidates.

State Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is the Democratic candidate for governor against incumbent GOP Gov. Nathan Deal. Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, is facing an as-yet-undetermined Republican candidate. Both races are pretty tight in the normally deep-red state. For example, here are polling numbers for Carter vs. Deal, courtesy of Real Clear Politics:

So, will a down-ballot Democrat like Morgan or Wilson benefit from having close-fought races (if not Democratic victories) higher up?

Let’s take a look at the disparities between Morgan and Wilson in the superintendent’s race, and throw in some information about Carter in the gubernatorial contest.

Cash on the Barrelhead

On their campaign pages, Wilson, the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary with 33 percent of the vote, makes a big deal of the K-12 funding situation in Georgia, while Morgan mentions it only briefly.

Wilson stresses that Georgia lawmakers have shortchanged the state’s K-12 funding formula by as much as $800 million this year, and that “the state must provide better support for small districts with big needs. State funding must be flexible enough to bolster districts that don’t have the revenue for support programs proven to boost success among economically disadvantaged children.”

Morgan, meanwhile, who nabbed 26 percent of the primary vote, mentions K-12 spending as part of a bigger list of ways to improve schools. She says the state should look for “creative ways to address budget deficits” at the same time that the state uses more data to make decisions, and equips Georgia schools with “state-of-the-art technology.”

Among the gubernatorial candidates, Carter has attacked Deal over his K-12 spending record in particular. Per-student spending has increased over the four fiscal years since Deal took office, and K-12 spending now amounts to about $7.9 billion annually, PolitiFact reported. But not all of that money goes to the classroom, furloughs still persist, and schools still haven’t recovered from state budget cuts that were initiated in 2003. PolitiFact also took Carter to task, however, for his characterization of Deal as having “the worst record on education” of any governor in Georgia history, a criticism Carter apparently meant to address K-12 spending under Deal. The fact-checking operation went so far as to give Carter its infamous lowest rating as far as truth-telling:

Interestingly, in his TV ad below, Carter says that education needs to be funded “first” and “before the politicians get their hands on that money,” but he also describes himself as a “fiscal conservative.” (Both of the ads on his website have focused on children and education.)

Charter Schools

In addition to highlighting her support for 2009 legislation (ultimately signed into law) that allowed parents public-school choice within their districts, Morgan has also pushed for a Georgia constitutional amendment to allow the state to authorize charter schools.

“Alisha believes that parental choice is one way to help level the playing field, especially for low-income parents who may not otherwise have access to educational options for their children,” she states on her website.

But Wilson has a very different view. She says that while non-profit charter schools can be helpful for students, she opposes “privatization” and for-profit charters because of what she calls their very sketchy record in Georgia. “Most importantly, Valarie proposes that Georgia charter schools remain truly non-profit—in accord with the original vision of the charter school movement,” she states.

As for Carter, he has said that while he’s a supporter of charter schools, he opposed the amendment that Morgan supported regarding state authorization for charters.

Local Control and Parents

That’s a good segue into another issue: Carter said he opposed that amendment because it would strip local school boards of too much power.

Not surprisingly, given the work she does at the state school boards association, Wilson agrees with the general notion of strong local control. In the video below, she talks about how her mother-in-law, who worked to integrate schools, convinced her to send her son to public instead of private school, and that this experience led her to run for her local school board:

Morgan frames the issue differently: She says she’ll work to build new partnerships between schools and both private and public organizations, “as well as faith, civic, and corporate communities that will enhance educational opportunities for educators and students.”

The Power of Teachers

Although she was a supporter of unsuccessful legislation that would have ended “last in, first out” labor contracts, Morgan also says in the video below that teachers feel they are unjustly blamed for public school woes, and that, “We need to stop that.”

In a list of other teacher-related priorities, Morgan also supports improving teacher-preparation programs, and “strong” teacher evaluations that gives them “immediate feedback.”

Carter wants to reinstitute merit pay for teachers who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But he devotes a lot of attention on teacher furloughs in recent years: “Since 2009, Georgia’s public schools have lost more than 9,000 classroom teachers while the number of students has gone up. Class sizes are up in 95 percent of school districts across the state. Nearly three-quarters of Georgia school districts fail to teach students the full 180 days per year.”

Wilson, who wants “effective teachers” for all schools, has received endorsements from the Georgia Association of Educators as well as the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

Common Ground?

So, where is there pretty clear agreement between the candidates? On the Common Core State Standards: Wilson and Morgan both give the standards their full support. And in February, I mentioned that Morgan introduced a resolution in the state legislature reaffirming the state’s support for the standards.

Carter, meanwhile, voted against a bill intended to make the state step away from the common core, calling the legislation a “stunt.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.