If public education in Georgia doesn't have enough problems, there is now a high-profile ruckus between Gov. Nathan Deal and State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge. It has gotten so peevish that there is talk that the school superintendent may challenge Deal in the Republican gubernatorial primary next spring.
This brouhaha seems to have its origins in Dr. Barge's opposition to the charter school amendment, which was passed handily by Georgia voters last November. Recently, the governor's office pulled the Governor's Honors Program for elite high school students out of the Department of Education and sources tell me other programs may soon follow.
I caught up with Barge by telephone in Cordele last week while he was touring school districts in the region and asked him if he is serious about taking on a well-funded incumbent. He said he would let me - and you - know "within the next three weeks." But, he certainly sounds like a guy who is running.
"If Nathan Deal wins reelection, you won't recognize public education when he is through," Barge says. He suspects that what the governor is planning to do is much like what has happened in Wyoming. There, the governor has removed most of the authority from the elected school superintendent and placed it in his office, leaving the superintendent with an honors program, transportation responsibilities and a staff of eight.
Truth in advertising requires me to say that in checking up on the situation in Wyoming, the superintendent there - a Tea Party stalwart - seems to have created a lot of the issues herself with her management style - or lack thereof.
But back to Georgia, having a state school superintendent who is elected by the voters being politically neutered by the governor and fiscally punished by a Legislature mesmerized by deep-pocketed out-of-state "for choice" groups because they don't like his policies is troubling to say the least. If we voters don't approve of what the school superintendent is doing, isn't it our responsibility to express that disapproval at the ballot box? Otherwise, why have an elected superintendent? Do away with the position and put Howdy Doody on the job. Puppets are much easier to manage.
The governor's office came out firing recently, saying that if Barge runs for governor, "we can now elect an education leader who'll work on behalf of our children instead of playing politics" and adding, "a great education is a major factor in our state's economic development."
Barge chuckles at those comments and says that Deal's current economic development trip to China includes Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia and Ron Jackson, commissioner of Georgia's Technical College System, but not him.
"I wasn't invited," he says simply.
In his defense, Barge has been on the job for less than three years. Georgia has been reducing the formula funding local school systems for 10 years. Speaking of "working on behalf of children," 121 school districts have had to cut the school year due to the lack of funding and in the past five years more than 4,000 Georgia public school teachers have been laid off. I'm not sure we can put all the blame for this sorry record on the state school superintendent.
Long-time political observer and columnist Tom Crawford noted recently that "the state's political leadership evidently considers it more important to spend $200 million in tax proceeds on a new football stadium for billionaire NFL owner Arthur Blank than to provide enough money to keep our classrooms open for 180 days a year. That's madness." That's true and that's reprehensible.
Barge says despite the lack of support and charges of defending the status quo, Georgia leads the country in growth on national education tests - SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement and the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Math, Reading and Science - and is the only state in the nation to make gains on each test in the most recent administration of them.
"We must be doing something right," he quips.
If the superintendent runs - and I believe he will - "uphill" doesn't begin to describe the challenge Barge has ahead of him. He is going to have to develop a grassroots organization of the first magnitude because big-money contributors always bet on the incumbent. Deal already has a war chest estimated at $1.1 million.
But before you completely write the man off, remember the unknown Republican state senator from Bonaire who took on a powerful Democratic incumbent in 2002? We all know how that turned out.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.