State school Superintendent John Barge is on a political suicide mission.
He decided last year not to try for another term as the elected head of Georgia’s Department of Education, choosing instead to run for governor in the Republican primary against incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal and Dalton Mayor David Pennington.
I suspect Barge knows he is facing long odds when he opposes a sitting governor in his own party primary. The superintendent has also raised only a small amount of money for his campaign, less than Pennington and much less than Deal.
But just by taking on this imposing task, Barge has performed a valuable service for his state. He is helping focus attention on an issue that’s been dragging Georgia down for more than a decade: “austerity cuts” in state funding for local school systems that collectively total more than $7 billion.
Barge issued one of the most hard-hitting campaign statements I’ve ever seen a couple of weeks ago when he sent a lengthy letter to Deal and state legislators that laid out the financial impact of these funding reductions on public schools.
“The very fact that the state as a whole has shown any improvements in education under these conditions is miraculous,” Barge wrote. “This success has occurred in spite of the fact that teachers have been laid off, class sizes are larger, programs like art and music have been completely removed from many schools, teachers have been furloughed, and days of instruction have been cut from school calendars.”
Barge notes the embarrassing fact that dozens of our public school districts do not provide the 180 days of classroom instruction that was once required by law: “Most of our school districts simply cannot afford to keep the doors open!”
“Some of the schools I visited turned the lights off in the halls to save money on the electric bills!” Barge wrote. “I saw carpet that was completely threadbare, holes in walls, and water fountains that had obviously broken and were removed rather than being fixed because there was no money to fix them.”
“I am not talking about a third world country! I am talking about our schools, right here in Georgia!”
Barge’s outrage focuses on the problems faced by school systems in rural counties, which do not have large tax bases and cannot raise property taxes very much to make up for cutbacks in state funding.
Urban and suburban systems face challenges as well. Shortly after the Cobb County Commission voted in November to approve $300 million in public funds for an Atlanta Braves baseball stadium, the chairman of the Cobb school board confessed at a public hearing: “We’re broke.”
In all fairness, Deal has tried to stop the bleeding since he became governor. His proposed state budget would add more than $500 million in funding for local school systems.
“My proposal represents the largest single-year increase in K-12 funding in seven years,” Deal said.
“It will enable us, in partnership with local school districts, to restore instructional days, eliminate teacher furloughs and increase teacher salaries,” Deal said. “These funds will provide our local school systems with the resources and flexibility to address the most critical needs of their students and teachers.”
Although the governor’s increase does not restore the $7 billion in state funding that’s been lost since 2003, it at least is a recognition that we must stop short-changing this important investment in our state’s future.
Because of his presence in the GOP primary, Barge will help maintain the focus of public attention on the school funding issue, as will state Sen. Jason Carter, the expected Democratic nominee for governor.
Whenever I write a column about the issue of school funding, I always receive emails from readers who contend that you can’t solve the problems of our education system by “throwing money at it.”
They are correct that simply spending more money is no guarantee that things will get fixed. But the state hasn’t been throwing more money at our schools — it’s been spending billions of dollars less.
When you cut back that much, any system is going to perform poorly. It’s time we had a discussion of that performance and its cause. The governor’s race will be a good place to start it.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.