The Democratic rift over Nathan Deal's schools rescue plan

Two decidedly different strategies are emerging among Democrats who are weighing Gov. Nathan Deal's school-rescue plan.

Senate Democrats are waging open warfare on the proposal, which would give the state new powers to take over perennially failing schools. The chamber's top Democratic leaders have loudly criticized the plan as an overreach and said more funding, and not new governance, is needed. They plan to issue a counter-proposal this week, and their caucus is trying to close ranks.

You probably won't see the same tactics playing out in the House. Stacey Abrams, the chamber's minority leader, is scheduled to attend Deal's fact-finding trip to Louisiana later this month. She won't take a firm stance on the measure, but said on GPB's "Political Rewind" show that she's got several burning questions.

She's not certain about the metric used to determine what schools are deemed failures and noted that many of the 141 schools on the governor's list are in poverty-stricken areas that could need more "dramatic changes" to stabilize. She also said there are too few details about the exit strategy for schools that have bounced back.

The strategic divide between the chambers is a perennial concern for Democrats, whose leaders often don't work in concert on major issues. In 2012, Abrams released her caucus to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools even as Senate Democratic leaders remained staunchly opposed. It passed and was approved by voters later that year.

Deal's proposal this year goes another step by creating a statewide "Opportunity School District" that can take in as many as 100 distressed schools. Under Deal’s proposal, the state would have final say over schools put into the district and could fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students learn. Schools would stay under state oversight for at least five years but no more than 10.

Democratic support is essential because Deal's proposal is a constitutional amendment, requiring two-thirds approval by both chambers before it lands on the ballot in 2016. The GOP holds a commanding edge in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, but Deal will need to pick off Democrats in both chambers to make up for Republicans who bolt.

Abrams said her caucus has attended Deal's listening sessions and has held its own roundtable discussion with academics on the merits and flaws of the legislation. Rather than put forward a competing plan, though, she signaled she would rather push for changes in the existing proposal.

"We need to see the legislation evolve," she said of the wait-and-see approach. "What gets on there the first day is rarely what makes it to the end."

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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.
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