Gubernatorial Campaign in Georgia Focuses on Education Funding

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Usually, education doesn’t take center stage as a make-or-break issue in state elections. This year, however, in Georgia’s gubernatorial election, school funding has become pivotal as the two leading candidates attack one another over who is the stronger supporter of public schools.

Incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and state Sen. Jason Carter (D-42) both call the other an enemy of public education.  The governor has cut education funding, harming the students and teachers, says Carter.  Deal says that Carter was one of five senators who voted against the most recent budget which includes more money for schools, according to Allie Bidwell of US News and World Report.

“If you really do support public education, you should have voted for the largest increase in K-12 funding in seven years,” Deal said during a debate on Sunday, the Athens Banner-Herald reported.

Deal is also trying to paint Carter as inexperienced and inconsistent. Carter, however, has the backing of public schoolteachers and their unions which have become political bankrollers, particularly for Democrats. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers plan to spend $40 million and $20 million, respectively, on this year’s preferred candidates.

Probably because of his promise to increase education funding without raising taxes, Carter has received the endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators, an NEA local affiliate. During Deal’s time in office, education funding has been short of the state’s funding formula. For the last five years budgets have been $1 billion short, partly because of austerity cuts since 2003.

Because of the cuts, districts have had to shorten the number of school days, increase class sizes, and furlough teachers. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Georgia is among 14 states where per-pupil funding is still more than 10% below 2008 levels.

Deal and Carter were tied at 44% each in the latest poll.

Maureen Downey, a columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, writes that  a column of hers this week was received poorly by Nathan Deal’s campaign. Deal’s camp misplaced their focus in the gubernatorial contest on maintaining the HOPE Scholarship, according to Downey, who feels the scholarship is not in danger. Her main point was that there is a bigger issue and that is what role should the state take in education reform.

Dick Yarbrough of OnlineAthens interviewed Gov. Deal about his plans for public education if he is elected to a second term. His main intent, he said, was to orchestrate a top-to-bottom review of public education in Georgia. Deal continued by saying that an on-going priority was to have all third-graders reading at grade-level. He remains committed to charter schools and to keeping good teachers in the classroom, and the governor would like to establish a “blue-ribbon, statewide education reform commission with the responsibilities for making it happen”.

At the center of Jason Carter’s bid for the governor’s spot is his call for a separate state education budget and his promise to increase funding for schools, writes Kathleen Foody for the Associated Press.

“If folks have to stand up and say ‘Are we properly funding education every single year?’ I believe you will see a very different discussion and an increase in the funding,” Carter told reporters after a Georgia PTA candidate forum this month.

However, says Mike Griffith, a school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States, taking politics out of budgeting is unlikely.

“Budgeting is politics,” he said. “That’s what the budgeting process is, negotiating these things out.”

Bob Schneider, director of state affairs at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, says:

“My gut instinct is a separate budget might make it easier to add a little bit to the school budget, but in the long run, you still only have so much revenue to carve up,” he said.

Beyond the budget change, Carter has said that he would focus on teacher training and retention. Carter maintains that the state can collect more than $2 billion in unpaid taxes and can cut waste to increase the amount of funding for education.