As I watched a phalanx of middle-class school teachers on the steps of the capitol yesterday, railing against Georgia’s cuts to their insurance plan while their adorable children played with an iPad at the foot of the podium, I found myself thinking about the political malpractice leading to that image.
Set aside the partisan considerations of Republicans versus Democrats for a moment. What political leader of either party in their right mind picks a fight with round-cheeked telegenic Mom-and-apple-pie schoolteachers in an election year? There’s no teachers union in this right-to-work state worthy of the term, so there’s no way to frame it like that. Rank-and-file teachers here haven’t exactly rolled up fat contracts like you’d see in Massachusetts and New Jersey. And it’s really hard to argue that you’re an “education governor” with a line of picket-wielding math teachers in your backfield.
Roy Barnes played that game in 2010, to obvious effect.
Malpractice count number two, in my view, is the dramatic misunderstanding of the way social media fuels debate in this state. A UGA study from last year ranked Georgia in the bottom ranks of civic engagement in almost every measure … except online. Georgians holler at each other on Facebook more than almost anyone else in America. Social media makes it incredibly easy for people to compare notes to see just how they’re getting screwed.
The group I saw, T.R.A.G.I.C. – Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes – did not exist six years ago, or six months ago, or six weeks ago. Ashley Cline founded the Facebook group on January 12. Two weeks later it had a thousand members. Two weeks after that, it has 14,000 members and is holding rallies on the capitol steps with Doug Richards waving a microphone under her nose.
The new Blue Cross Blue Shield plan for 2014 jacked up their out-of-pocket costs for doctor’s visits and medications. One by one, the horror stories started to emerge online – a widowed teacher who can’t afford checkups for her son, or a pensioner on oxygen tanks who can’t get her insurance company to authorize all of the air she needs to breathe.
Asked for comment, the governor’s office blamed Obamacare, and ran for cover. And, because the teachers know that the ACA has nothing to do with budget cuts in the state insurance program, they’ve hit the roof.
Teachers in Georgia have had reason to be pissed off for years. Never mind the stagnant salaries – an effective 10 percent pay cut since 2009 – and the furlough days and administrative idiocy in the large urban school systems of metro Atlanta. And forget the general hostility to public education as an entity among the conservative commentariat around here. They’ve been lied to by the state, again – political malpractice count number three. You might be able to get away with it once, but it’s hard to break a promise twice to the same group and walk away.
Roughly two percent of Georgia’s teachers spent weeks of their free time and about $3,000 out of pocket to obtain national teachers certification, on the promise that they would earn a 10 percent pay differential as long as the certificate remained current. A year into Deal’s term, he cut it. Expected incentives for highly-qualified pre-K teachers similarly disappeared. After giving Barnes the cold shoulder for similar treatment, teachers noticed when Deal pulled a similar move.
At a press conference yesterday, Deal’s likely Democratic challenger State Sen. Jason Carter made restoring that cut – a bit more than $13 million – a center piece of his education platform. He intends to use lottery funds to cover the cost. Apparently, the lottery has been shorting the education fund – yet another lie presented to the public. Georgians were willing to “tolerate” a state lottery with the promise that 35 percent of the proceeds would go to an education fund, Carter said. At last count, the Lottery Corporation deposited about 25.5 percent in.
Carter wants a hard statutory floor on how much lottery money can be withheld for other purposes – a floor that will gradually rise back up to 35 percent.
At first blush, these seem like modest goals. There’s more, of course, but Carter appears to have taken this as a starting point because it’s achievable without a bunch of partisan rancor. Fixing these problems is at least as much a trust exercise as anything. I asked Carter about how he might fix the far more contentious formula for parceling out state money to local school districts, which is universally understood to be completely broken. He replied, in essence, that there’s little point in trying to repair the formula if the state won’t actually follow the formula. Trust has been broken. Trust has to be repaired first.