Nathan Deal sounds ready for a fight if his failing school plan tanks

Gov. Nathan Deal has made his failing schools initiative the linchpin of his second term in office. And if it fails at the ballot next month, he sounds ready to declare war on some of the plan’s staunchest opponents: Local school boards.

In an interview, the Republican cast local school boards as a power-hungry monopoly and said he would ratchet up the pressure on them to embrace trust-busting changes if voters reject his Opportunity School District constitutional amendment in November.

“If the amendment is not successful, then I expect local boards of education to demonstrate more than just simply saying, ‘Don’t intrude on our territory,” he said.

“For example, they have the authority to allow a parent or guardian of a child in a chronically failing school to attend another school that is not failing in their own school district,” he added. “Thus far, they have not seen the initiative to do things like that. That would be a simple change they could make.”

Deal’s plan would give the state the power to take control of persistently failing schools through a new statewide school district, and he’s pitched the idea as a way to reverse a cycle of poverty from local school districts he says have failed children for too long.

It faces staunch opposition from leading Democrats, educators and more than 40 school boards – including some in Republican areas. They contend it would hand control of local schools to an aloof entity that’s not accountable to voters, and hand the governor’s office too much power.

In the interview, Deal made clear he will ramp up his scrutiny on school districts if the measure fails to pass.

“I want to see that they would be doing something other than say, ‘We’re protecting our monopoly,’” Deal said. “And that’s what they have – a monopoly. And monopolies, as a general rule, have no competition and see no reason to change. I would expect them to show some evidence that they’re willing to change.”

Deal was asked whether requiring school districts to allow students in failing schools to transfer was a “plan B” in case the constitutional amendment fails.

“That’s always been a Plan A. We have relegated the authority to these local school boards forever, and the result is exactly what we’re up against now. I don’t think anybody is really satisfied with that now,” he said. “I expect them to do something other than just sprout rhetoric.”

Deal’s remarks came after the release of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that found nearly 60 percent of voters would vote against the amendment, including a majority of Republicans willing to defy the governor.

But the poll question, which laid out the pros and cons of the debate, is starkly different from the question voters will see on the ballots. That question is worded more favorably for supporters, and the governor’s allies say they remain confident it will pass in November.

7 things to know about the Opportunity School District

It is no sure thing, particularly in this unpredictable election, and both sides are well-funded. The opponents have poured roughly $2.7 million into the campaign against the measure, while Deal’s allies have countered with at least $1.7 million.

And for Deal, the pre-emptive warning to local school districts is the latest in a string of broadsides he and his allies have leveled at local school boards.

His chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent districts an inquiry last week asking how they use payroll deductions for educators’ membership dues in powerful teachers groups. It was seen as a prelude to legislation that could ban educators from using the deductions to join professional organizations.

And Deal’s office on Monday blasted school districts that failed to use about $300 million in extra money to grant teachers a 3 percent pay raise. Many of the districts used the money as a one-time bonus, to reduce furloughs or fill holes in their school system budgets.

The governor expected staunch opposition from Democrats, who fiercely opposed the measure in the Legislature. But he has struggled to tailor his message to skeptical Republicans, who fear it will rob schools of local control.

In the interview, Deal said he had a warning for conservatives who might view persistently failing schools as an abstract problem. The students who drop out of those schools are “more likely to go into a life of crime,” he said, “and they’re going to branch out.”

“They’re going to go to those school systems where people are more affluent. Where they have cars that they can hijack. Where they have houses they can burglarize. Where they can find victims for whatever criminal activity they are pursuing,” he said. “So it does impact us all from a criminal standpoint.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.