Carter Sees an Opening With Teachers

February 19, 2014 13:54 pm

by George Chidi · 14 comments

Teacher rally 2-18-2014As 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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy C. February 19, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Excellent article, George. You hit the nail on the head. I have asked myself a million times regarding Governor Deal and his cronies, “What were they thinking?” I think the short answer to this might be that they thought the state employees would blindly just take this, like everything else they’ve heaped on us, but I also think Deal thought we would all blame this on Obamacare, thus garnering support for him, by default. If that’s the case, it backfired big time. Nice meeting you yesterday.

xdog February 19, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Good job, George. Teachers and flaggers put Sonny in over Roy. You’d think Deal would have been paying a little closer attention.

SmyrnaModerate February 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Lets see, antagonize South Georgia by passing immigration “reform” which seemed to do nothing more than make it more difficult for the agriculture industry to function well and allow rural hospitals to close (4 in the last 18 months and counting) while there’s millions in free medicaid money sitting on the table (yes, it won’t be free forever and has a million strings attached but people don’t care so much about that when all the doctors leave town)

anger the teachers and other state employees with an insider deal to change the state health system and hope just saying “Obamacare” would somehow be a get out of jail free card. unfortunately, teachers are annoyingly educated and not so easily duped.

Watch your critical core constituency of North Atlanta suburban voters languish on interstates for 12 hours plus while giving the impression of not doing a single thing to help them while the kids are equally stuck in schools. Then for extra measure let “your doing a heck of a job” Charlie English get in front of a TV presser to tell everyone the roads weren’t bad as late as 4 pm so there wasn’t anything for GEMA to be doing.

Governor Deal will probably still be re-elected this year but he sure does seem to be doing everything possible to make it very interesting.

ryanhawk February 19, 2014 at 4:58 pm

“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?”

Perhaps those who give a damn about changing a corrupt status quo? People like Eva Moskovitz, for example. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304434104579382993628994458

Jason Carter has already proven to be a pander bear on education and doesn’t deserve to be elected to anything. He talks out of both sides of his mouth, and will say whatever he thinks you want to hear. Charter Schools? He’s for them in theory (until he gets a charter bill to vote against, or an opportunity to send his law partner to litigate against them). For all the talk about Carter versus Kasim Reed, I’ll put my money on Alisha Thomas Morgan being the Democrat that kicks Carter’s rear in the 2016 Gov Primary .

George Chidi February 19, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Are you, seriously, with a straight face, comparing the tenure and union-work-rule teachers of New York — starting salary for a teacher on Long Island is about $60,000 a year — to the right-to-work state teachers of Georgia with an average starting salary of around $33,000 a year, in the bottom quarter of pay in America and essentially no union job protections or tenure provisions?

Ryan. No. Try again.

ryanhawk February 19, 2014 at 10:32 pm

The comparison I would draw is between Jason Carter and Bill de Blasio; Do gooder white liberals who pander to the education status quo for votes while standing between poor students and a better school. You just made the case for the collective power of Georgia’s teachers at the ballot box in your post and now you want to deny it in the comments? You can’t have it both ways. And you can’t deny Carter’s pandering.

George Chidi February 20, 2014 at 8:38 am

Well, given the fact that Carter’s wife is a public school teacher, I’d call it something other than pandering. He undoubtedly hears about the school house every day, and I suspect that’s led to sincere and reasonably well-informed opinions about what works and what doesn’t.

I don’t know where you get that I’m denying that teachers have ballot power here in Georgia from my previous comments. What they don’t have is the same legal power.

The Blue Cross changes just hit some of the lowest-paid teachers in America with an effective pay cut of about 5 percent. We’ve done this despite a serious teacher retention problem — 9000 fewer teachers in the state over the last five years, during an increase in the student population. I suspect you would view addressing this problem in any way other than the elimination of public education as we know it as “pandering.” But, feel free to tell me otherwise.

Harry February 20, 2014 at 10:11 am

1. Georgia teachers are not some of the lowest-paid teachers in America, especially considering the cost of living. Georgia teachers are some of he highest-paid in this region. In some communities in Georgia teachers earn twice the average local income of the taxpayers who pay their wages. Inequality, yes.
2. The Blue Cross changes are a direct result of Obamacare’s attempt to socialize the risks and dump the costs of the scheme onto middle class, traditional families.

griftdrift February 20, 2014 at 10:25 am

Harry, those fat cat teachers just don’t know how good they have it!

Harry February 20, 2014 at 10:34 am

For some teachers, that’s true.

ryanhawk February 20, 2014 at 10:55 am

If teacher’s spouses are incapable of pandering, then both Nathan Deal and Jason Carter are on a level playing field and there is nothing to discuss. I think we both know that premise is not true.

If you want to talk about state (or local) workers and what they are paid, teachers are way down the list of public sector employees we should be worried about. Do you know how much DFACS employees, with similar levels of education and credentials are paid? Compare their pay, work load, and working conditions and then get back with me on how hard Georgia’s teachers have it. Compare your local cops retirement security with your local teacher’s retirement security and get back with me about which we should be addressing.

Or compare MY (or your) health plan and what I pay for it with what teachers have and get back with me. And yet they want me to pay more taxes so they can pay less for their plan. Fact is they are paid well, have been shielded from more cuts than the vast majority of public or private sector employees, and yet collectively they are the biggest whiners of the bunch. Good public policy is not driven by election year pandering to powerful whiners and that is precisely what is happening here.

griftdrift February 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm

State workers have had it much worse than the teachers. But they are not as powerful a political entity. That’s just the facts of life. Always has been.

Jon Lester February 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

I don’t think Carter would prioritize openly rewarding his top contributors from the first day forward, as de Blasio obviously has, if he wants a second term. You don’t have to be a seasoned pundit to imagine how badly that would play in Georgia.

JGP February 19, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Thank you for the coverage of the TRAGIC rally yesterday!