A fight over education funding in Georgia’s governor’s race sharpens

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It’s a big year for politics in Georgia, with a governor up for re-election and an open U.S. Senate seat. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following it every step of the way.

Democrat Jason Carter promises to significantly boost classroom funding should he win November’s gubernatorial election. Gov. Nathan Deal vows to reward the state’s most effective teachers and redirect school money to where its most needed if he’s granted a second term.

Their proposals would cost millions of dollars, and to nobody’s surprise, neither says he would support new taxes to pay for the programs. Instead, the two are trotting out election-year standards, saying they can get better classroom results by cutting wasteful spending and making government more efficient.

The candidates' education spending plans came into sharper focus after a week of back-to-school tours that crisscrossed the state. Both pledged to make education the focus of their political agendas in hopes of boosting mediocre national rankings and encouraging more economic development.

The governor says recalculating the complicated schools funding formula will boost education spending without requiring huge new investments. He also previewed a targeted proposal that would give top teachers raises lest they leave the public school system for higher pay.

“We are making huge strides, I believe, in trying to tune our education delivery system to the needs of employers both now and in the future,” the governor said at a stop on Atlanta’s outskirts.

Carter wants to create a separate budget for education, though until recently he's been reluctant to say how he would pay for increases. He elaborated during a visit Thursday to a DeKalb County school, saying that a budget review would yield "a giant amount of waste" that could be better spent in classrooms. He would not single out specific programs he would cut.

“You see it throughout the government. Everyone knows that it’s there,” said Carter, an Atlanta state senator. “We have not done a true top-to-bottom review in years and years and years. And the current administration is not looking for answers into how to make the government more efficient.”

An austerity education

Georgia’s school funding depends on a complicated formula outlined in a 1985 law that was controversial from the start. Amid an economic downturn, Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2003 called for austerity cuts to education that increased to more than $1 billion a year in his final years in office and continued at largely the same level in Deal’s tenure.

The governor’s budget proposal this year included more than $300 million in additional k-12 funding, which his critics said was aimed at appeasing upset teachers ahead of an election. The extra funding helped some districts return to a 180-day calendar, eliminate furlough days for staffers and boost salaries.

Democrats and other Deal critics say the uptick in funding actually translates into a less severe spending cut than typical. The left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said the cash infusion, when judged against what the funding formula requires, amounts to a roughly $750 million education shortfall for the fiscal year.

The governor doesn’t factor the formula into the calculations and said his spending proposals increased k-12 spending, if slightly, his first three years in office. He often tells audiences his spending plan this year amounted to the largest increase for education in seven years.

He vows to update the spending formula if re-elected, saying it needs to be viewed in "modern-day terms." Critics say it's outlived its purpose and that it hasn't kept pace with changing technology needs or transportation issues for Georgia's growing population.

“We need to look at the overall picture of how we fund education and how we hold the systems accountable for results,” the governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We know that some of the systems that spend the most per child sometimes have the poorest graduation rates and the poorest test results.”

‘Can’t have it both ways’

Carter is also under fire for his previous votes in favor of Deal’s education budget. During his first three years in office, he voted for Deal’s spending proposals, including the austerity cuts to education. He voted against it this year, after announcing he would run for governor.

Deal said this week that the Carter votes were a sign he couldn’t make tough decisions, and other Republicans seized on them as well.

“He voted for the budget every year for three years, and then when he decides to run for governor, he doesn’t vote for it? It just doesn’t make sense to me,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody. “It’s just making a political statement.”

Carter said the funding boost was election-year politicking to mask the governor’s “dismantling” of the education system.

“The governor on average has underfunded our schools by $1 billion each year, and the claim that they have done enough is just not true,” Carter said. “The $750 million shortfall into the education fund this year is not something I support.”

How to boost education spending is a question that’s dogged both campaigns. Both candidates have vowed not to raise taxes to boost the education system. The governor said a tax increase is clearly “not an issue that’s favored by the public,” while Carter said tax increases are off the table partly because of a deep mistrust in government policies.

Deal didn’t outline the cost of his proposal to boost top teacher pay, though his office said it involved a possible expansion of a federal pilot program that rewards the best teachers. Carter said Deal’s plan can’t make up for the governor’s “utter disdain” for the education system his first years in office.

Republicans, meanwhile, quickly mocked Carter’s lack of specifics over how he would reverse billions of dollars in austerity cuts. Deal’s campaign released a chart showing 70 programs or agencies that would have to be cut to make up the $1 billion gap in the education funding formula.

“Ironically, Democrats in Carter’s own party have criticized Deal every year for doing exactly what Carter proposed,” Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber said. “In fact, Democrats have bitterly complained that Deal’s targeted cuts have been ‘bone-deep.’ Which one is it? Carter can’t have it both ways.”

Politicians have long turned to exhaustive budget reviews in hopes of squeezing out extra spending, sometimes as “an election-year cop-out,” University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said. But it’s more surprising, he said, to hear it from a Democratic candidate.

“It tends to be more of a Republican argument than a Democratic one,” Bullock said. “Republicans always believe that money’s being thrown away, that the government doesn’t do a good enough job of oversight. And now Carter’s saying the same thing.”

Carter, for his part, said he won't get pigeon-holed on specific ideas for budget cuts. He said those attacks amount to a "false choice and the politics of the past that we're trying to put aside."

“You have to have transparency in the budgeting process,” he said. “And I think working with the Republican Legislature, we can make the tough budgeting choices that will allow us to invest in education and balance the budget.”

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