Gov. Nathan Deal’s school takeover bid squeaked through the Georgia Legislature by the narrowest of margins. His next challenge is persuading a majority of Georgia voters to also approve it.
The governor’s allies are preparing a campaign in support of the plan, which would create a new statewide school district to take control of some of Georgia’s most distressed schools. School groups, Democratic heavyweights and other opponents are readying their own counteroffensive against the 2016 ballot question.
The result will likely be a multimillion-dollar campaign financed partly by big donors that will flood airwaves and websites with flashy advertisements just in time for the presidential election. And both sides will seek to learn from the last contentious ballot question, a 2012 initiative that let Georgia approve charter schools.
That campaign, fueled by millions of dollars in out-of-state cash, was a proxy fight over a broader question of whether parents should have more choice. It passed with 58 percent of the vote, thanks partly to a surge of support in Democratic-leaning counties.
Chip Lake, a Republican consultant who is expected to be involved in the 2016 amendment campaign, said that vote proved that Deal and his allies can broaden their appeal beyond the traditional GOP base.
“The one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that these schools aren’t working,” said Lake, who was also involved in the 2012 effort. “We have the ability to message to Democrats and Republicans. We’re not going to replicate what we did three years ago, but we feel pretty confident that a captive audience wants to examine this.”
Opponents are mustering their own attacks. Critics, including the Georgia Association of Educators and the Georgia School Boards Association, can call on their tens of thousands of supporters to knock on doors and call voters. And Democratic Party of Georgia head DuBose Porter said his allies will be ready with their own campaign.
“The DPG stands by our educators and leaders in the House and Senate who opposed this bill,” Porter said. “We do not believe that Governor Deal — who has shown such a complete disregard for education and its funding — should be tasked with the sole responsibility of rehabilitating Georgia’s struggling schools.”
Supporters have language on their side
The legislation is Deal’s top second-term initiative, and it passed both chambers by the thinnest of margins. If it passes, the “Opportunity School District” could take in as many as 100 schools deemed to be persistent failures with scores on a state performance index under 60 for three years running.
It took a mix of arm-twisting and cajoling to wrangle just enough lawmakers to approve the plan. The Senate mustered exactly the two-thirds majority Deal needed, while it passed the House with only one vote to spare. Deal said in an interview that he would be fully engaged in making sure it crossed the finish line.
The foundation of a campaign is already at the ready. The Coalition for Georgia’s Future is a nonprofit set up by Lake that could become a vehicle for the ballot initiative. The group spent about $200,000 in 2014 boosting Deal’s election campaign and has advocated for his school plan since January.
Lake said he expects focus groups and market research to hone the message over the next few months. What it won’t look like, he said, is a “drawn-out debate over education policy.”
“If this amendment is about adults arguing over education policy, it’s not heading in a good direction,” he said. “But if it’s about doing everything we can at the state level to make sure every kid has the best chance to succeed, then it’s in better shape.”
Opposition forces are considering options that include the creation of a new coalition that would coordinate their efforts. Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said his group and other critics are still weighing their choices.
“We really can’t say what the next step will be,” Chapman said. “But we will be looking carefully at all possibilities.”
They are mindful of one built-in advantage that supporters have: language in the constitutional amendment that asks voters “to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance.”
Republican leaders resisted changes to replace words such as “failing” and add more specifics to the question. Even a Democratic critic acknowledged that the wording will make it tremendously difficult to defeat the amendment once it reaches the voters.
“The only way a ballot question will fail is if you put the word ‘tax’ in it,” said state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Austell. “If you put the word ‘tax’ in it, it will fail. If you don’t put that word in, it will pass.”
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