This week’s Courier Herald column:
Governor Deal spent Friday morning at a public appearance, which isn’t unusual given that he’s campaigning for what appears to be a very close election that will be held in roughly five weeks. What could be considered unusual is that his location was in Clayton County – not exactly a bastion of Republican votes. Even more unusual is that the Governor’s partner for the photo op was rap star Ludacris.
Ludacris encouraged the students to do well, noting that “A lot of people will tell you you’re at a disadvantage, but I feel like you’re at an advantage. You have street smarts. But when you add book smarts to that, you’re unstoppable.”
The purpose of the appearance was to highlight the opening of Utopian Academy charter school in Riverdale, just south of the runways of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson airport. It is an example of a school opening because of the recently passed constitutional amendment allowing for state sponsored charter schools, as Utopian had been denied a charter for three straight years by the Clayton County Board of Education.
It is also evidence that the Governor is keenly aware he is running in a general election in which the voter base is not merely an extension of a Republican primary. The urban areas in and near Atlanta that have had accreditation issues with their local school boards gave the 2012 state charter school amendment some of its strongest support. Clayton County voters returned 71% of their votes in favor of the amendment, well above the state’s 59%.
Utopian Academy’s trouble at the local level did not end when the State granted the school’s charter. Local officials refused to give the school an occupancy permit, which delayed the start of the school year while city and county officials determined what inspections were required.
The students are now well into their school year. They wear uniforms. They learn in single gender classrooms. They have fine arts blended into their daily curriculum. All different than the traditional public school they would otherwise be attending. All made possible by the passage of the state charter schools amendment that came at the mid-point of Deal’s first term.
The visit to Utopian gave Deal more than the opportunity to demonstrate support for charter schools as an option for choice to fix failing schools. It also allowed him to quietly reaffirm the concept that “local control” when it comes to education means decisions are best made by parents, as it’s impossible to get more local than that.
By appearing in Clayton County with Ludacris at his side, Deal also broke through an issue that has become somewhat of a caricature of Republican campaigns in Georgia. Too many of the images that come from GOP events are dominated by pictures of aging white men. The images from Riverdale last Friday go well beyond a change in optics. They instead go to the heart of the Governor’s polices, and his results.
Charter schools are in theory a vehicle to allow any student to choose an alternative to the school assigned by their local board of education. In reality, they are mostly needed in areas of poverty, where there is a significant overlap to the concentration of underperforming schools.
Children born in areas of poverty often end up becoming too familiar with the criminal justice system – an area Governor Deal has spent three years initiating a series of reforms. While the GOP base was sold on the savings of $20 Million per year to the state coffers, it should not be lost that the new incarceration rate for African Americans has dropped 20% since his reforms have been implemented.
Governor Deal has spent his first term in office with his record of accomplishments being increased educational opportunities, sentencing reform for minor infractions, and a plan to assist some with criminal records back into the job market. These aren’t the kinds of topics that provide red meat to a hungry GOP base, but can and should be helpful to a Governor who needs undecided and independent voters to break his way in order to earn a second four years in office.