Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia School Superintendent John Barge threw an outside curve ball into Republican plans for school reform last week. In the process he managed to blindside current leadership attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to allow funding for state sponsored charter schools. He also likely just started the 2014 campaign cycle.
Barge now believes that State Charter Schools take away local control of schools and “unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education”. Let’s first look at the word “unnecessarily”.
Georgia public schools have been in the bottom 20% of U.S. schools for decades. We have tried throwing money at the problem. Georgia teachers have the highest total compensation package relative to their cost of living according to the John Locke Foundation. Yet our rankings in student performance continue to bump along the bottom. What we’ve considered “necessary” hasn’t been getting the job done.
Barge continues with “…Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts — much less an additional $430 million in state funds, which is what it would cost to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years…”
And therein lies the philosophical divide that Barge has drawn with his fellow Republican elected officials over the approach to education. It is clear he now believes the amount of money the state contributes to local education is the property of entrenched bureaucracies. Republicans supporting the charter school amendment believe the funds belong to the student, to be used in a manner that puts them, and not an establishment of educrats, as the first priority.
Here is a distinction that must not be lost on Republicans who will fight the battle for both the charter school amendment and for school reforms in general. Too many rely on an intellectually lazy argument that blames “teachers’ unions” for the inability to change paradigms in education. Georgia does not have teachers’ unions. This is an easily provable fact, enshrined in state law. Anyone debating otherwise is ill informed.
Georgia does, however, have an education establishment. In many areas the board of education is the largest employer. In much of suburban Atlanta, the public schools are quite good and the local school boards quite popular and influential. Unions are not required to assert political power, and Georgia’s education establishment has grown quite adept at doing so. Charter schools represent a direct challenge to their state granted monopoly franchises for education.
Barge’s statement is in direct opposition to what he said as a candidate. Just two years ago, Barge found himself the unlikely front runner after incumbent Kathy Cox withdrew her candidacy only a week after her strongest opposition announced he would not qualify for the race. A career educator, candidate Barge said at the time “the flexibility from burdensome state and federal regulation helps charters to provide unique opportunities that I believe all students need.” And “This is simple. The money follows the student.” These statements were used to gain the support of many he now opposes over the passage of the charter school amendment.
As a candidate, Barge understood that the money follows the student. As the state’s top education bureaucrat, he now falls squarely on the side of the bureaucracy and the status quo. This is disappointing and unfortunate.
The current battle is to pass an amendment to allow the state to approve and fund charter schools from the state level. Barge’s opposition gives a high ranking voice to the efforts of those opposed. It also likely sets up a primary challenge for 2014.
Barge is not a career politician, and has no entrenched political network outside of his educator base. Within hours of his statement, Republican phone lines were ringing to inquire as to the availability of challengers for 2014. Most statewide elected Republicans will be on the ballot then, many for the first time. They are not looking forward to sharing a ticket with someone that appears to have just torpedoed their party’s signature plan for education reform.
Barge will likely have the education establishment on his side. This will put most Republicans on the opposite side of the Education establishment in 2014. This development should not be taken lightly.
Educators are largely credited with the votes that removed Roy Barnes from the governor’s mansion in 2002. In 2014, their anger may well be focused on Republicans other than Barge, and not the Democrats.