Miller: A Passion for Improving Schools in Ga.

By Linda Jacobson — May 14, 1997 7 min read


Gov. Zell Miller never gives a speech without making some reference to Georgia’s past or quoting a well-known American.

So it’s not surprising that, as the end of his second term nears, he’s planning to combine his love of history with his intimate knowledge of politics. One of his many postgubernatorial goals is to write a book about the 10 most influential Southern governors.

If there were a book about education governors, Mr. Miller just might be the main character.

Consider the evidence: Since Mr. Miller’s election as governor of Georgia in 1990, he has seen to it that more than $2 billion in state lottery revenue has been spent on education. Today, other states are trying to copy Georgia’s successes.

Almost 240,000 students have gone to college through his lottery-funded scholarship program, HOPE--for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally. The initiative has inspired President Clinton, who wants to pass a tuition tax credit and call it America’s Hope program. (“Ga. Plan Offers Key To Opening College Doors,” Feb. 12, 1997.)

And the state’s prekindergarten classes, also supported by lottery proceeds, draw visitors and phone calls every week from those staggered by the vast numbers of 4-year-olds--57,000 this year--being served.

Plans To Teach

“We’re not accustomed to being number one in anything having to do with education,” said Mike Voller, the director of the pre-K program. “We just happen to have one man who had a dream that he could make a substantial difference through the use of a lottery.”

Observers say Mr. Miller is poised for national prominence.

But as the Democratic governor prepares to leave the gold-domed Capitol here in January 1999, Mr. Miller doesn’t talk about political plans. Instead, at 65, he’s focused on a personal agenda that includes the occupation closest to his heart--teaching.

Mr. Miller hopes to return with his wife, Shirley, to Young Harris, his hometown in the north Georgia mountains, where he will teach a freshman-level political science class at Young Harris College. In addition to his book on Southern governors, he’s also discussed plans to teach a graduate course called “Southern Politics of the 20th Century” at Emory University in Atlanta.

It was in Young Harris that Mr. Miller served as mayor for one year before his election to the state Senate in 1960. He served two terms as a state senator, and then four terms as lieutenant governor.

“I’ve had my time in the arena, and now I want to sit in the bleachers,” Mr. Miller said in an interview last month, with memories of last year’s Summer Olympics in Atlanta apparently still fresh. “I have run my last political race. I have absolutely no desire to go to Washington.”

Leaving a Mark

Still, there are those who suspect Mr. Miller might change his mind, as he did after promising in 1990 to serve only one term as governor.

“I just can’t believe that he’s going to go quietly when he still has so much to offer,” said Barbara Christmas, the president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, one of two independent teachers’ organizations in the state. “I think it would be natural for him to leave a mark in Washington, as well.”

Mr. Miller calls education the “passion” of his administration. It has occasionally propelled the former Marine drill sergeant into battle.

While spending for education has increased, other departments have seen budget cuts and some state services have been privatized--moves that have sparked criticism among some of the reduced programs’ proponents.

And even educators don’t always take well to his brash leadership style. He is the man, after all, who supported cutting the state education department staff by a third and slashing the number of local central-office administrators.

“There are times when he’s impatient. He wants to jump in with both feet and get things accomplished in a hurry,” said state Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, a Republican. “I can always cut through the gruff exterior because I know what’s inside is positive for children.”

His pledge to bring Georgia’s teachers’ salaries in line with the national average--by asking legislators for four 6 percent raises--is another example of his uncompromising approach. Some local school boards, calling the raise an unfunded mandate, said they couldn’t afford to give such raises.

And Mr. Miller stunned people last fall when, after months of highly publicized feuding between Ms. Schrenko and the Democrat-controlled state school board, he asked all 10 sitting board members--whom he had appointed--to resign. Two refused.

‘Republican Democrat’

Yet, it is hard to find critics of Mr. Miller’s education focus. Even the state’s conservative think tank, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, applauds Mr. Miller on a number of points, particularly his attempts to cut bureaucracy at the state level.

“He’s the best Republican Democratic governor we’ve had,” said Kelly McCutchen, the executive director of the foundation, jokingly referring to his fiscally conservative approach.

Mr. Miller’s policy of “budget redirection"--targeting money to proven programs--is a cornerstone of his agenda this year as the chairman of the Education Commission of the States. “He is willing to face tough decisions of looking at things that might not be working,” said Linda Hertert, the director of policy studies at the ECS, a Denver-based education clearinghouse for 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Another Good Year

Back in Atlanta, the frenzied final days of the 1997 legislative session have passed. Mr. Miller appears relaxed as he sits on a leather couch in his office and talks about how well most of his education proposals fared this year.

For one, he got his third 6 percent raise for teachers, meaning that Georgia now ranks second in the Southeastern region, behind Virginia, in teacher salaries, according to an American Federation of Teachers survey.

Legislators also passed his $6.1 million plan to allow students who did not enter college on a HOPE scholarship to earn one after maintaining a B average for one year. Previously, it took two years.

One small budget setback, however, has left him puzzled. He had wanted to spend $300,000 on innovative dropout-prevention programs and had spoken of personally phoning dropouts and urging them to continue their educations. He even challenged state lawmakers to do the same. But not one took him up on the idea, and the legislature gave him only $50,000.

“Maybe it’s because of my crusty personality,” Mr. Miller said. “Folks got the idea that I was going to call up these dropouts and beat up on them.”

The education initiatives financed by the lottery remain popular with legislators--partly because their own children and grandchildren benefit. In fact, Mr. Miller’s push to eliminate the family-income caps originally required to participate in HOPE and the preschool program is considered one of his wisest political moves.

“The way to protect [the programs] is to make sure they’re popular with the people,” Mr. Miller said, adding that he broke his one-term promise so he could smooth out rough spots in the lottery initiatives.

A New Standard

By earmarking lottery proceeds for specific education programs, Mr. Miller may have set a new standard. Although lotteries are often sold as a way to improve schools, those dollars often end up simply replacing education spending in the general fund.

“Without question, Georgia is the prototype on how to create a lottery that people will like and people will play,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

She added that recent sales-tax referendums for local school construction in Georgia succeeded because public trust in education spending is high. Sixty-three of 67 measures passed.

But Mr. Miller’s lottery programs faced challenges in their early days. When the HOPE program began, Mr. Voller, the pre-K director, recalls, its rules changed almost daily. And Mr. Miller’s plans to open the pre-K program to all comers, instead of just at-risk children, spurred debate over whether students were being challenged by the program. (“Ga. Chief Takes Aim at NAEYC Materials,” Feb. 14, 1996.) Prekindergarten sites now may choose from three well-regarded preschool curricula.

Kay Pippin, the lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, the state’s National Education Association affiliate, said it is fitting that the governor will make a keynote speech when the union’s annual meeting is held here in July.

“Miller has redefined Georgia. This was a chicken-farming state,” said Ms. Pippin, who shares Mr. Miller’s mountain roots. “People were skeptical that we would be able to make such monumental changes.”

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