Gov. Deal lays out education plans and lashes out at critics

Gov. Nathan Deal told Georgia educational leaders Thursday that his final two years in office will see a pivot to education policy, and he lashed out at critics of his budgets and his push for a state takeover of “chronically failing” schools.

Speaking at the Georgia Education Leadership Institute, an annual conference for superintendents, school board members, principals and other education leaders, Deal tied his previous focus on helping former convicts transition to society to his pending emphasis on students and keeping them out of the prison pipeline in the first place.

“Education reform is the best and the ultimate criminal justice reform,” Deal said in an impassioned speech that went a dozen minutes beyond the allotted half hour.

The governor, who married a school teacher, said the state under his watch has spent proportionately more on education than any Georgia administration in the last half century, and he lambasted education advocates who complain about “austerity cuts” despite annual increases in the state’s education budget in recent years. He had special venom for school leaders who repeatedly failed to pass along budget increases to teachers in the form of raises and reduced furlough days over the past three years, saying he and lawmakers would make such raises mandatory in future budgets.

“The General Assembly and I have lost our patience in trusting” superintendents and local boards of education, he said.

Deal unleashed his sharpest words on critics of his proposed constitutional amendment to create an “Opportunity School District.” The Nov. 8 ballot item would take away some of the control of education long endowed in locally-elected school boards. If voters approve it, the amendment will allow the state to take over “chronically failing” schools — schools that Deal said have trapped mostly poor, “voiceless” and minority children for generations.

Nearly 68,000 kids are compelled by law to attend these 127 schools, Deal said. “If you think that’s right, then vote against the constitutional amendment.”

In a backhanded compliment, Deal credited local superintendents with keeping out of the fray, or, as he put it, “They’ve kept their mouths shut even if they don’t agree with it.”

But the clearly agitated governor noted that some school board members had spoken critically in newspaper articles about the state takeover proposal.

A handful of school boards have adopted formal, though symbolic, resolutions opposing the amendment, including Cherokee, Clayton, Fayette and Henry counties in metro Atlanta, saying it erodes local control over education and tax dollars. (The Georgia PTA is also opposing the amendment, in part because of what they and other critics see as "deceptive" and "misleading" ballot language.)

Deal said people should ask these critics if they send their children or grandchildren to a failing school. “I can almost guarantee you the answer will be no,” said the governor, who was raised by two school teachers and whose wife, Sandra, is a retired teacher. (He noted that the choral director for the group that sang The Star-Spangled Banner ahead of his speech had been a student in his wife’s sixth grade classroom.)

The governor also looked beyond the November voting, telegraphing one key legislative push next year. Deal said he plans to work with lawmakers to overhaul the decades old school funding formula. He promised that districts that would get less money under a formula change would be protected by a “hold harmless” clause. “So there is no loser in the proposal. There will only be gainers.”

The two-term governor, who said he has no plans to run for another office, opened his speech saying it is an “exciting” time for education, “and I consider myself to be an educator.”

His pledge for a relentless focus on education policy, with no worries about re-election as his administration winds down, promises to make it a top topic in this state.