Dispute between Deal and Barge flares over federal funding woes

A dispute between Gov. Nathan Deal and Superintendent John Barge resurfaced Thursday, as the state tries to save almost $10 million in federal education grant funds suddenly at risk of being withheld. It highlighted anew the rift between the two powerful Republicans and the implications it has on a range of education programs.

The governor suggested the problem with the Race to the Top grants could have been avoided if Barge accepted his pick to run the federal program. Deal said it’s squarely up to Barge to address Washington’s concerns.

“He’s responsible for the administration of that,” said Deal. “And I have every expectation that he will do what he’s promised me he will do.”

The woes surround the U.S. Department of Education’s threat Tuesday to withhold nearly $10 million in grant funds because Georgia’s new teacher-evaluation system won’t immediately include the merit-pay component the state promised when it pursued the funds. It was the first time the federal department had taken such action against any state.

Deal’s office is ultimately responsible for making sure that the federal money is used in accordance with the state’s grant application. His comments Thursday show that he’s willing to cede the problem to Barge rather than intervene himself. And they were a reminder of how personal relationships can complicate policy issues.

The two men have been at odds since Barge bucked Deal and other GOP leaders to oppose a ballot measure giving the state more power to create charter schools.

Since then, Deal's spending proposals have significantly shrunk Barge's central office budget and Deal's office has taken control of key programs, such as the Governor's Honors Program for elite high school students, which was transferred Thursday.

But one of the most heated disputes is over the state's $400 million Race to the Top grant. The two clashed over who should head the grant program, with the superintendent ultimately filling the position with his choice. The governor indicated on Thursday that the decision was a fateful one.

“As you may recall, we had suggested someone as head of the Race to the Top effort,” Deal said. “He did not accept that individual. We agreed to accept the one that he appointed. And he assured me when that happened, he’d keep that program on track. I expect him to do that.”

Barge said he has confidence in his “top notch” Race to the Top staff and said the person he ultimately chose to lead the program, Susan Andrews, earned the governor’s endorsement. He said the setback should come as no surprise to the governor, noting that his staff was clued in on all the decisions.

“I have always been clear that we are not going to implement a program just so we can say we checked the box,” Barge said in a statement. “We cannot allow the federal government to dictate what’s best for Georgia’s teachers and students. We will take our time and get it right the first time, even if that means not getting $9.9 million of this federal money.”

A federal Education Department official said this week that Georgia wouldn’t get the $9.9 million if it doesn’t show it plans to include merit pay in its teacher-evaluation system by the start of the school year. The state could get the money later, if it adds a plan for merit pay by September 2015. If it doesn’t, unless the federal government agrees to allow something else instead of merit pay, the state would permanently lose access to that money.

Deal and Barge have reached a tenuous alliance over other recent education flash points. Both support the Common Core curriculum guidelines that have come under attack by critics who fear they undercut state sovereignty. And both backed the decision not to offer a new test tied to the standards that could cost as much as $27 million more a year to administer.

Now they face daunting new challenges. Georgia’s effort to save the $9.9 million in federal grants is being carefully watched by education experts across the nation. And the two men must agree on a replacement test that not only measures student achievement but can be used to compare it to the progress of other students across the nation.

That won't be easy and it won't be cheap. As tests focus more on written analysis, Deal warned that the cost to administer the tests will only rise. Those growing costs will present new challenges to budget-writers who otherwise have a little more fiscal breathing room thanks to a state surplus expected to top $600 million next year.

“Anytime you do more complex testing, such as written responses rather than multiple choices, it’s going to be more expensive,” the governor said. “I do think we can anticipate having to spend more money on testing.”