Barge sound­ing more like a chal­lenger to Deal

The Covington News - - OPINION -

As 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, re­fo­cus­ing on Ge­or­gia, hav­ing an elected state school su­per­in­ten­dent be­ing po­lit­i­cally neutered by the gover­nor and fis­cally pun­ished by a Leg­is­la­ture mes­mer­ized by deep-pock­eted out-of­s­tate “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 Barge.

“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 that, 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 yarb2400@ bell­ or P.O. Box 725373, At­lanta, Ge­or­gia 31139.

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