Georgia teacher group to governor: Stop creating divisions. Support our efforts.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

I think we now have a formal declaration of war over the governor's campaign to push the Opportunity School District.

It's a war of words but those words are coming fast and furious, including the rebuke just issued by the largest teacher group in the state to Nathan Deal's related comments Thursday about teacher pay.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators was meeting with the AJC Thursday morning when Gov. Nathan Deal was speaking at a downtown conference of school leaders where he scolded school boards for their opposition to his Opportunity School District and commended superintendents for keeping "their mouths shut even if they don't agree with it."

(Thursday was a big day for the Opportunity School District. I am listening to a recording of Deal's former education policy adviser Erin Hames speaking last night on the OSD in Buckhead.)

Among Deal's comments:

"There was an article in the AJC just this week from Ty Tagami about school board reactions concerning the OSD proposal. The discerning reader will note that those school systems with the most failing schools tend to be the ones who oppose it. I would counter that if they spent half as much time addressing the problems in their systems as they do railing and working against OSD, it wouldn't be necessary."

Today, PAGE issued a strong response to Deal's comments, focusing largely on the teacher pay element:

It's no surprise Gov. Nathan Deal claimed in a message to educational leaders yesterday that school boards and superintendents have broken trust with him and the General Assembly by not giving teachers a 3 percent pay raise this year.

The governor telegraphed this tactic during his State of the State address when he said he was allowing districts flexibility in their use of austerity reduction funds with the intent that it be used for a 3 percent teacher pay raise. "If that does not happen, it will make it more difficult next year for the state to grant local systems more flexibility in the expenditure of state education dollars ...  ."

District administrators, teachers and education advocates understood the trap because there wasn't enough funding for most districts to address increased health care costs for classified employees and other insurance rate increases, costs of increased enrollment and also make up for years of decreased state funding. If the governor really wanted teachers to get a 3 percent pay raise he would have increased the state teacher salary schedule. That didn't happen because he also knows that an adjustment to the salary schedule creates an ongoing cost as it continues into future years. That also would have impacted the potential baseline cost of implementing Education Reform Commission (ERC) recommendations on some form of merit pay that would eliminate the state teacher salary schedule.

Gov. Deal correctly states that he and the Legislature are spending more money than ever before on education, a necessary investment to serve the children in Georgia's public schools, whose numbers have grown by more than 10,000 in the last three years. And the reductions in austerity cuts, which topped $1 billion annually from 2010 to 2014, are much welcomed and appreciated.

Despite this progress, however, the state is spending less per student adjusted for inflation now than was allocated in 2002. And the state still fell short $166 million of providing the full amount determined by the current K-12 funding formula for the current school year.

At the same time, the needs of Georgia's students have grown, with about 60 percent now low-income, and so have the goals the state has set for them. These place new demands on teachers and schools and addressing them requires resources. True funding reform cannot take place unless state leaders look to the future and consider the resources that are needed to ensure that all children in Georgia's schools are successful, especially those in rural and low-wealth districts with limited local resources, which is exactly what the ERC deliberately avoided.

Many districts across this state have been and continue to fight to make up for billions of dollars in state austerity cuts over many years. Promoting the idea that state funding was adequate for a 3 percent raise for teachers knowing that it was not possible for many districts created unfair pressure on local boards and superintendents and promoted a false expectation for teachers. And, now that many local districts used state funds to address financial needs caused in large part due to the state's underfunding of the education budget, he uses this as a hammer against them.

The governor seems more interested in driving a wedge between state legislators, teachers, administrators and local school boards rather than supporting them in their work. Gov. Deal's strategy was obvious last January and it's no surprise to educators to hear his comments yesterday.

Let's be real in this upcoming legislative session. We ask Gov. Deal to submit a budget that at a minimum fully funds education and that includes pay raises for teachers in the state salary schedule.

CLICK HERE for an excerpt from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute's 2017 Budget Primer showing how per student funding lags behind the needs of Georgia's students.

Go here for Gov. Deal's prepared speech.  But go here for the AJC news story, which includes some of the governor's unscripted remarks.