Georgia’s Reform Law Stirs Political Pot

By Linda Jacobson — September 20, 2000 5 min read

Georgia’s new A-Plus Education Reform Act, which legislators passed earlier this year, was meant to stir up the education establishment by holding schools accountable for improving student performance. But no one dreamed it would do quite so much to stir up the political establishment as well.

Not only were several lawmakers who voted for the bill defeated in primary elections this summer, but the controversial law also has created some unexpected alliances that could leave even the most experienced political observers a little confused.

Now, as November’s general election draws closer and implementation of the law begins in local districts, some analysts in the state say the legislation could continue to have an influence at the polls.

“I think it will be a bigger factor in state legislative contests than it was in July,” said Charles S. Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia in Athens, referring to the July 18 primaries. “Most Republican challengers will attack their opponents on this.”

At the center of this unfolding drama is state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, who has made her objections to Democratic Gov. Roy E. Barnes’ school improvement package overwhelmingly clear. A Republican now serving her second term in the post, Ms. Schrenko didn’t let party loyalty keep her from actively campaigning against fellow Republicans who voted to pass the legislation. All seven of the GOP incumbents she publicly targeted for defeat did in fact lose in the primaries.

Not only has Ms. Schrenko turned against fellow party members, but she has also become an unlikely spokeswoman for the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association that does not typically side with Republicans on education issues.

“This law has transcended parties,” she said.

Changing Course

Her role is an interesting switch for someone who has shunned the “education establishment” in the state since first being elected in 1994.

Now she’s calling for a 10 percent raise for teachers in the 2001 legislative session. Gov. Barnes, on the other hand, angered the GAE with various parts of his plan, including one that eliminated tenure for new teachers. In many teachers’ eyes, that change left the impression that he holds them partly responsible for keeping Georgia toward the bottom of most educational rankings.

Franklin Shumake, a former state education official who now publishes a newsletter about the law’s implementation, suggested Ms. Schrenko has exploited some educators’ unhappiness with the governor. “The governor set the pace for a confrontation with school people instead of working with them, and she jumped right into it,” he said.

The law created a new Office of Educational Accountability, separate from the state education department, a move that Ms. Schrenko characterized as an effort to limit her power. It also increased instructional time in core academic courses for middle school students and sharply limited the use of teacher’s aides—two changes that have generated considerable discontent among educators.

Under the new rules, districts may no longer exceed state class- size limits by using aides, prompting layoffs that some say have contributed to a political backlash in the education community. “People are angrier than I’ve seen them in 24 years in education, and that anger is translating into action,” said Ralph Noble, the president of the GAE. “It’s our job to get a legislature that sees the teachers’ point of view.”

But David J. Worley, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, doesn’t see the Republican primary as a preview of the general election. In fact, he argued, instead of being a political liability, the governor’s education agenda is “a very positive issue for the Democratic candidates who supported it.” Most voters, he added, are in favor of the law’s main provisions.

Democrats hold majorities in both Georgia legislative chambers, outnumbering Republicans 102 to 78 in the House, and 34 to 22 in the Senate.

Even if the Republicans don’t pick up any more seats in November, “they’ll come back with a strong message” in January when the legislature reconvenes, Mr. Shumake said. He added that some lawmakers from both parties could make it harder for Gov. Barnes to push through further changes.

“I think all legislators are going to be a little more sensitive to what they buy hook, line, and sinker,” he said.

‘Force To Be Reckoned With’

As Ms. Schrenko crisscrosses the state criticizing the new law and highlighting her own ideas for improving student performance, the schools chief may be laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run in 2002, the year Gov. Barnes will be up for re-election. She said she’ll decide about running for governor or for a third term as superintendent based on the outcome of the next legislative session.

“If I’m not satisfied with the way things go, I can run again and outlast him as superintendent, or I can run against him,” she said.

While the state superintendent’s seat has not traditionally proved to be a steppingstone to higher elected office in Georgia, Ms. Schrenko’s perceived success against incumbent Republicans during the primary made her “a force to be reckoned with, especially in the Republican Party,” Mr. Noble of the GAE said. “They better listen to her.”

But Mr. Worley, the Democratic chairman, said he believes the superintendent and those who voted against the education measure are committing “political suicide.”

“I have been shocked all year that they have been in a headlong rush over a political cliff,” he said. “They’re going against a large majority of the voters in this state.”

Whatever happens in November, many education leaders in the state just want the political scorekeeping to end. “The most unfortunate outcome to me is that it has put good people who want the same thing for education on opposite sides, and put educators in the middle,” said Barbara Christmas, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Educators, a nonunion group that originally opposed pieces of the law, but ultimately supported it.

Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, thinks that whatever ramifications the law was going to have at the polls have passed. “What we need to be doing now is working together as a team,” Mr. Ashley said. “We need to take our different viewpoints and translate those into what is best for our educational system and our state.”


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