Rift in black caucus revealed as Georgia legislator considers bid to run state’s schools

Georgia Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan’s possible run for state schools superintendent is bringing to the surface the complicated relationship she has with fellow members of Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus.

Morgan, a Democrat from Austell who hosted a teacher appreciation day at the Capitol on Thursday, said she has not made up her mind about a run for superintendent in November 2014.

But her possible candidacy has already brought out fiery opposition from state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who said Morgan should not be elected to oversee the state’s public school system because she is an advocate of charter schools.

“On issues of supporting teachers, supporting public schools, I don’t think she’s been supportive of either,” Fort said. “She’s been involved with the right wing on charter schools. I find it surprising that someone with that kind of record would be having a teacher appreciation day.”

Among some black caucus members at the Capitol, eyes occasionally roll and heads sometimes shake when Morgan speaks up for charter schools as important alternatives for students trapped in struggling traditional public schools.

Morgan has argued that many of those students are black, making her advocacy of options for them something of a civil rights issue.

Some black legislators, however, say the push for charter schools is really about sapping funding from and publicly vilifying traditional public schools. They argue that Republicans are simply using black students in struggling schools — with Morgan’s willing or unwitting acquiescence — as props in their quest to put for-profit charter management companies in charge of public schools.

Morgan, first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2002, has a relatively high profile in the Legislature, a noteworthy fact given that her party is in the minority.

Her profile — and the ire of fellow Democrats like Fort — has been raised by her public support for charters.

Despite the deep rift between Morgan and many black legislators on school choice, most of her caucus colleagues are loath to speak out publicly against one of their own.

Fort, however, didn’t hold back when Morgan asked fellow lawmakers to join her in celebrating the sacrifices and successes of teachers.

“I can not in good conscious ‘help’ you to thank teachers when you have, through your support of charter school and voucher legislation, worked to diminish the rights of teachers,” Fort wrote in an e-mail to Morgan and fellow black caucus members last week. “I think as legislators we would do better by teachers if we did less symbolism and more of a concrete nature by voting … in the best interests of teachers. Your collaboration with right-wing groups that attack teachers rather than cooperate with them is not something I agree with.”

Fort’s opposition to Morgan’s possible candidacy was quickly joined by Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

“Teachers cannot and will not support someone who works against the best interest of public schools,” Turner said.

Last year, during the contentious debate over whether the state constitution should be amended to clarify the state’s authority to create charter schools, many Democrats in elected office campaigned against the change. They argued that passage of the amendment would open the door to a dual public school system, one of charters governed by unelected, for-profit management firms and one governed by elected school board members. They also said passage of the amendment — which they argued was written in a deliberately misleading way — would diminish the authority of local school board members.

Republicans took the opposite stand, saying charter schools provide an alternative to parents in struggling traditional public schools. In press conferences and in other comments, they had strong criticism of the state’s public school system as bloated, ineffective and resistant to change.

Morgan bucked her party and backed the amendment, offering up her own tough assessment of the state’s public schools.

The amendment was passed with 58 percent of the vote.

“My connection to the charter amendment speaks to my connection to parents,” Morgan said.

Turner, however, sees it differently.

“In the end, the amendment passed because it was slick politics, not sound policy,” she said. “It took a lot of arm-twisting and outside money to impose this bad policy on the people of Georgia.”

When told of Turner’s and Fort’s comments, Morgan said simply, “I don’t focus on negativity.”

As for questions about her motive in hosting Thursday’s teacher appreciation day, Morgan said she cares deeply about public education and sought the event not as a political gambit but as a thank you to teachers.

“I wanted to do something in May, but that was the end of the school year and it was a busy time for teachers,” Morgan said. “This all came about because teachers are under pressure in our state. We are pushing Common Core. We are putting together a new teacher evaluation system. We need to do something. We need to say thank you.”

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