Georgia’s Deal to push ahead on education agenda despite veto backlash

Gov. Nathan Deal has been painted as a closet liberal, blamed for Donald Trump’s ascent and even “censured” by west Georgia conservatives for a pair of controversial vetoes. But facing an outpouring of angst from fellow Republicans, he’s doubling down on an ambitious education overhaul that might take every ounce of political clout he has left.

The governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he doesn’t plan to scale back his education agenda an iota even as he braces for the fallout over his rejection of the two biggest-ticket measures that passed the Legislature this year. And he’s stepped up his pitch to persuade voters to give final approval to his school takeover plan in November.

Deal still has plenty of tools to bend lawmakers to his will. He sets the blueprint for billions of dollars in spending in the annual budget, makes dozens of sought-after appointments a year and, of course, has the final say on hundreds of pieces of legislation.

But his plan to “revolutionize” how Georgia schools are funded, what they teach and how they operate could be his biggest ask yet. And fellow Republicans in the Legislature seem newly emboldened to defy him after he nixed both a “campus carry” bill to allow concealed guns on public college campuses and a “religious liberty” measure that would have broadened legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage.

The governor’s image among Republicans has taken a decisive hit. While an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows 52 percent of Georgians give him a positive approval rating thanks to a sharp increase in Democratic support, his favorable reviews among Republicans have plummeted 15 percentage points since January.

That unrest has manifested itself in angry letters and calls to his office from voters, rebukes by rank-and-file conservatives, vows to oppose his plan to revive failing schools and scathing attacks from elected officials.

A majority of grass-roots Republican activists in Georgia’s 14 congressional districts passed resolutions in April that urged lawmakers to revive the “religious liberty” bill — and criticized Deal for vetoing it. One district overwhelmingly voted to censure the two-term Republican for a “disastrous and harmful” record of buckling to business interests.

“We’re not doing back flips for him anymore,” said Leslie McPherson, a Villa Rica city councilwoman who voted for the censure. “There’s a lack of trust and a lack of credibility in seeing Deal as a true conservative.”

None has gone so far as state Rep. Kevin Cooke, a Carrollton Republican who told a local radio station that he’s lost all faith in the governor.

“People want to know why Donald Trump is the nominee for president. Nathan Deal is the reason Donald Trump is the nominee for president,” Cooke told WLBB. “People are sick and tired of stinking politicians telling them what they’re going to do when they get in office, and then when they do that, they do the exact opposite.”

He added: “And we’re going to be stuck with him for two more stinking years.”

‘Not at all’

The governor’s allies have long feared that the battles over the two measures could jeopardize his plans to remake the education system.

Deal has made changes to the funding formula that guides how schools have financed the centerpiece of his second and final term, vowing to rewrite rules that haven’t substantially changed in the three decades since they became law — though other governors have tried. Deal’s plan is also set to make vast changes to teacher pay, charter school policy, early childhood learning and school “flexibility.”

He postponed the changes for a year amid opposition from House Speaker David Ralston and educator groups over his “merit pay” plan to tie student performance to teacher compensation. The contours are now being hashed out — a teacher advisory committee to vet the proposals is to be announced this month — but Deal sounded confident as ever.

“Not at all,” he said to a query on whether the backlash will require him to roll back his ambitions.

“I don’t think the General Assembly is going to react to that. If they disagree with me, they have several options. They can reintroduce the legislation. They can override my veto,” Deal said. “But more importantly, I hope they will focus on other issues that are important to this state. And education reform is one of those.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Ralston both said in interviews that the vetoes don’t taint their relationship with the governor, though both vowed to revive some form of the controversial measures next year.

“Politics is a process. You don’t look in the rearview mirror, you look in the windshield. Our state continues to grow, and our people need greater prosperity. The middle class continues to be squeezed,” Cagle said. “It’s incumbent upon us to govern and make sound decisions.”

One factor that could help Deal is that elements of his education changes — more teacher accountability, vows to make education spending more efficient — are rooted in conservative ideology.

While it will be harder for Deal to work with lawmakers, Dalton State College political scientist Ken Ellinger said, he predicts most of the governor’s education proposals will be adopted “because they also reflect the philosophy of most Republicans in the Legislature.”

‘A matter of trust’

The vetoes may also force Deal to play defense on another signature education policy, the hard-fought effort to empower the state to take over persistently troubled schools. The plan, known as the Opportunity School District, was narrowly approved by lawmakers last year but must be backed by a majority of voters in November to become law.

An internal poll from McLaughlin & Associates taken before the legislative session found that nearly 70 percent of voters would support the school takeover constitutional amendment, though Democrats were more likely to back the measure than Republicans. Yet some conservatives uneasy with the idea say they’ll now actively lobby against it.

Tanya Ditty, a Republican activist and a fierce critic of the governor’s vetoes, called it a “matter of trust.”

“If I cannot trust Governor Deal to defend religious freedom, then how can I trust Governor Deal to create an ‘Opportunity’ School District for failing schools, and to essentially run those schools out of his office?” she asked.

Ditto for Conrad Quagliaroli of the Cherokee County Tea Party Patriots, who said activists in his neck of the woods are of the same mind about the school takeover plan and the rest of Deal’s education agenda: “Don’t give the governor anything.”

“I know I will be the first to get on our representatives here in Cherokee County to just say no,” he said. “It will not be hard. No one I know likes the Opportunity School District bill anyway.”

As some conservatives sour on his education plans, Deal has begun to make his case more aggressively to left-leaning groups. At a recent address to the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, the governor said he wished Georgia didn’t need sweeping education changes.

“The furthest thing from my intentions is to take over schools. But if you’re failing our citizens and sending those kids to prison systems, someone has to intervene. And if it has to be me, it has to be me,” he said. “It will be up to my successor to implement it, but I want to plant the seeds now.”

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Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

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