Charting his way

Most politicians arrive in office with a crate of IOUs to the party leaders who bolstered their campaigns.

Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge took office in 2010 with little owed. The Republican establishment wrote off his candidacy because incumbent Kathy Cox was assured a third-term — until she announced she was leaving Georgia for a think tank in Washington weeks before the July primary.

Even then, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue ignored Barge and handpicked another candidate, throwing his support behind former state Board of Education member Brad Bryant, the man he picked to fill Cox’s remaining term. Bryant attempted to run for the office as an independent because it was too late to qualify as a Republican but fell short of the signatures required to earn a spot on the ballot.

In leading the Department of Education, Barge has not made much use of the latitude he enjoyed from entering office without political debts. He’s been a plain-speaking and pragmatic agency head, but not one who generated drama or headlines. That changed last week when he broke with the prevailing GOP sentiment on the November charter school amendment.

Barge told party leaders that he opposed the Republican-crafted amendment to the constitution that would create a state-appointed commission that could override local boards of educations and approve and fund charter schools. Such a commission had been in place until the state Supreme Court deemed it illegal in 2011.

Barge cited two main reasons for his opposition: The cost of operating a commission when the state Board of Education already can and does approve charter schools. He also pointed out that most charter schools approved by the state Charter Schools Commission did not outperform their home district schools in 2010-11 testing. And he noted that the overwhelming majority of charter schools in operation in the state — including some of the highest academic performers — were approved by local school boards, not the state.

“Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts – much less an additional $430 million in state funds, which is what it would cost to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years, the annual average of the Charter Commission that would be revived if the amendment passes,” he said in a statement.

Party leaders who overlooked Barge as a candidate paid attention last week when he turned into a maverick.

“I am discouraged that Superintendent Barge has changed his position since the campaign trail and no longer believes parents should have public school options for their children,” said Gov. Nathan Deal.

Contending that Barge had supported charter schools in his campaign, Georgia House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey asked, “were you lying then or are you lying now?”’

I asked Lindsey about whether Barge’s position — borne out of what seems to be sincere concern about duplicate spending at a time when Georgia schools can barely afford pencils — warranted such a stinging reprimand.

“My blunt rebuke and the governor’s comments were justified and necessary to set the record straight in this situation,” said Lindsey. “Superintendent Barge was not an education novice who campaigned on an issue he did not fully understand when he ran in 2010. He is an experienced educator who was well versed on the history of the charter school issue and fully understood the arguments for and against — most of which being the same arguments we are hearing today.”

But Barge counters that Lindsey and other amendment backers strayed from their conservative roots. “As the state’s top education official, I felt it was important stand up for the 1.6 million students and 111,000 teachers in Georgia’s public schools,” he said. “I fully support creating high quality charter schools, but I cannot support the constitutional amendment. It would be harmful to the 2,300 public schools in the state that have been cut more than $4 billion since 2008. I am a true conservative who believes in limited government and fiscal responsibility. Establishing a charter school commission would go against both of those principles.”