An October surprise: Suddenly, Nathan Deal's school takeover bid is a fight

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen takes a selfie with Gov. Nathan Deal and first lady Sandra Deal. Ben Gray /

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Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen takes a selfie with Gov. Nathan Deal and first lady Sandra Deal. Ben Gray /

It's October. And we have our surprise.

I was about to write that this has nothing to do with the race for the White House, a contest so whiplashed by this outrage and that scandal that it’s lost all shock value. But then that video of Donald Trump in all his hound-dog glory surfaced, and I have had to retrench.

In any case, this particular October surprise is local to Georgia: A sleepy state referendum on Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to permit the state to assume control of specific, chronically failing schools has suddenly become something other than a sure thing.

One part of the surprise: The National Education Association, in three checks written since Aug. 31, has chipped in $2 million to defeat the governor’s initiative.

In effect, the Washington-based NEA has decided to underwrite virtually the entire opposition campaign, putting the effort on a financial parity with the $1.2 million raised by Deal and his allies.

“It has been unfortunate to see out-of-state unions pouring millions of dollars into Georgia to defend the current failing status quo,” said Tom Willis of Opportunity for All Georgia Students, the group backing the governor’s play.

Part Two of the surprise: Some of the most conservative forces within the Georgia Republican party have lined up against the governor – or have at least decided to sit this fight out.

After the governor, School Superintendent Richard Woods is the top education official in the state. He is elected separately, and has a constituency of his own. Last week, while touring a Cobb County high school, Woods declared himself Switzerland.

Woods wouldn’t say whether he supports the governor’s proposed constitutional amendment that would permit the state to take over the administration of failing schools.

Many school boards across the state haven’t been nearly so shy, passing resolutions against the measure. And Wood’s visit to that school in Cobb was preceded by a scathing editorial in the conservative Marietta Daily Journal, condemning the governor’s proposal as an effort to finance the charter school movement.

“After commandeering the school, the education czar, appointed by and answerable only to the governor, has a number of options at his or her disposal, from closing the school and firing the principal and teachers to bringing in a for-profit charter school company to run it,” the editorial said in part.

Late last month, a statewide poll commissioned by WSB-TV and conducted by Landmark Communications and Rosetta Stone Communications found voters split almost down the middle on the issue, with 20 percent undecided. Roughly a third of GOP voters were hostile to the idea.

If I were a Las Vegas oddsmaker, I would still have to put my money on Deal. The bulk of Georgia’s GOP establishment remains behind the governor. And the wording on the Nov. 8 ballot favors the initiative — not entirely unusual on referendum questions, since questions are composed by the very people who want them passed.

Opponents have taken their objections to court, but judges are usually loathe to play proofreader to the Legislature.

History is also on Deal’s side. In 2012, the governor pushed through a constitutional amendment to allow the state to create charter schools — even over the objections of local school boards. The education community in large part condemned the measure, but it still won 59 percent of the popular vote.

Republican backers achieved that margin by reaching out to traditional Democrats — specifically African-Americans dissatisfied with the education choices offered their children. Proponents are attempting to replicate that success. A key figure featured in one TV ad is Freddie Powell Sims, a Democratic state senator from south Georgia and an African-American.

“In a political season that has become notorious for bitter partisanship, the Opportunity School District provides all voters the chance to come together to do what is right for the children of our state,” said Willis, who heads up the pro-OSD campaign.

The difference is that this time, opposition forces are focusing on building a bipartisan coalition, too. Opponents began gathering 18 months ago, after the Legislature voted to place the initiative on the ballot.

“From the beginning, it was a mixture of folks from different political backgrounds. I think it’s a very bipartisan issue,” said Chris Baumann, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Language used by the opposition campaign is couched in terms designed to appeal to conservatives. “Amendment 1 takes away local control, silences parents and teachers, and hands control of our schools to an unaccountable political appointee and out-of-state, for-profit corporations,” says the narrator in the TV ad launched by Keep Georgia Schools Local, the opposition group.

That ad now has a great deal of cash behind it.

Debbie Dooley, a leader of what remains of the tea party movement in Georgia, is opposed to Deal’s initiative. “Conservatives shouldn’t go around proclaiming they believe in local control, while at the same time trying to take it away,” Dooley said.

Mary Kay Bacallao, a former candidate for state school superintendent and an opponent of Common Core curriculum, is also opposed.

Not all movement Republicans are. State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has tangled with Deal over religious liberty legislation, is on the governor’s side in this fight.

But the opposition is also drawing in newcomers. Melissa Ladd, is a fifth-grade teacher in the Coweta County school system with an educational doctorate in school improvement.

She considers herself a conservative Republican who hates politics. But she thinks the governor has made a mistake by thinking local administration is at the root of school failures. The problem is poverty, she said.

“It’s not a cultural thing or a lack of ability. It’s a lack of resources,” Ladd said.

There are times when the best campaign strategy for passage of a referendum is silence, so as not to stir up hostilities. This is no longer one of those times.

At minimum, the energized opposition will require Governor Deal to put himself out in public as his own chief salesman, shouting to be heard above the presidential fray.