If last week’s legislative elections here were a referendum on Gov. Roy E. Barnes’ school improvement initiative, it appears that the governor can claim victory.
All but two of the incumbents in the legislature who voted for his A-Plus Education Reform Act and faced opposition in the Nov. 7 general election were re-elected. Some observers say the results show that voters generally support the Democratic governor’s plan, which the legislature passed last spring.
“While they may disagree with some of the specifics, they agree with the mission,” said Barbara Christmas, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a nonunion teachers’ group.
The far-reaching measure created a school accountability system based on student performance, and contained provisions to reduce class sizes and offer extra help to students who are having trouble meeting state academic standards, among other policy changes.
Ron Newcomb, the governor’s education adviser, said the fact that so many Democrats were re-elected to the legislature in a state that gave Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas almost 56 percent of the vote in the presidential election sends a “clear message” that Georgians back Mr. Barnes’ education policies.
But the state’s Republican schools chief interpreted the outcome differently. Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, a vocal critic of the governor’s initiative who spent much of this election season campaigning against incumbents who supported it, said she was encouraged by some of the results.
Several GOP legislators who voted against the reform law were re-elected by a wide margin, she noted. The Republicans picked up a few seats in the state Senate as well, even though both chambers of the legislature emerged from last week’s elections with their Democratic majorities intact.
Hoping for a Shift
The second-term state schools chief, who has said she may seek the GOP nomination for governor in 2002, said she hopes the outcome of the election brings a “more reasonable legislature that won’t just rubber-stamp everything from the governor.”
Only one of the 32 incumbents in the state House of Representatives who voted for the controversial bill and faced opposition was defeated last week. Similarly, 15 of the 16 state senators who supported the Democratic governor’s plan and faced challengers are returning for new terms.
In the months leading up to the election, Ms. Schrenko became an unlikely ally of the Georgia Association of Educators, the state’s National Education Association affiliate. The GAE opposes the new law largely because it eliminates tenure for new teachers. Many teachers, along with many parents, are also upset about a requirement that increases instructional time in academic subjects for middle school students, limiting the amount of time students can participate in electives, such as music.
Ms. Schrenko argues that the law doesn’t do enough to improve student achievement and transfers authority from the superintendent’s office to a new state agency in charge of accountability.
While the superintendent used the law as a litmus test for incumbents on the ballot in the general election, the GAE softened its stand following the July primaries and instead endorsed candidates based on broader criteria.
“We looked at their past records,” said Bob Cribbs, the GAE’s chief lobbyist. “We stuck with the person who had a long history of being supportive.”
In weighing its endorsements, Mr. Cribbs said union leaders paid close attention to whether incumbents indicated a willingness to address some of the more contentious aspects of the bill— especially the tenure issue—during the 2001 session.
Ms. Christmas said most people in Georgia’s education community expect some adjustments to the law next year.
“I’m confident that there will be some tweaking,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Most Ga. Legislators Survive Bid To Oust Them Over Schools Law