ATLANTA — State Schools Superintendent John Barge said Tuesday he’s considering a campaign to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal next year, raising the possibility of a heated Republican primary with a focus on education and school funding in Georgia.
Barge, who is nearing the end of his first term, said in an interview with The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he plans to make a final decision by early September. He has not ruled out running for a second term.
“I’m convinced things can be done differently,” said Barge, a former Bartow County school administrator. “Part of the frustration for us, to be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish, we need support. … It’s not only financial. It’s also encouragement, it’s standing with us.”
Although Deal would still be considered a favorite, Barge’s entrance into the race would force the governor to spend more money during the primary. Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who earlier announced a primary challenge, is expected to attack the governor’s fiscal stewardship. Barge would likely look to make education funding a top issue and make a play for support from teachers’ groups.
It’s the scenario that then-state GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart warned about earlier this year at a gathering of Georgia Republicans, when she urged the party’s faithful to rally around Deal, saying the governor had earned the right not to face a primary challenge.
Democrats, who are gearing up for Democrat Michelle Nunn’s bid for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss, have yet to field a candidate for governor.
Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor is not satisfied with the progress the state has made in education and that Barge has been defending the status quo.
Robinson pointed to the governor’s support for a state charter schools amendment, which was backed by Republicans. The measure, opposed by Barge, passed with broad support.
Barge, 46, said he was bound by a promise to the governor not to campaign against the measure and was unable to explain to voters why he opposed it while still being a supporter of charter schools.
“I will make sure voters know the truth, as far as my opposition is not to charter schools even though that is how it was painted,” Barge said. “The opposition was to the need for the amendment.”
A dispute between the two over who would oversee the state’s “Race to the Top” program resurfaced recently as the federal government warned that the state was in danger of losing $9.9 million of its $400 million grant because Georgia’s evaluation system has yet to tie teacher and administrator pay to performance.
When asked last week whether it was Barge’s mess to fix, Deal noted the disagreement and said Barge is the one responsible for administering the state’s effort.
Barge also cited gains in Georgia’s student test scores despite years of education cuts. He praised teachers, which represent a sizeable pool of potential voters. While teachers’ groups have not been considered major political players in Georgia, they were credited with being a factor that contributed to then-Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes’ defeat in 2002.
Tim Callahan of the 84,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators said Barge has built up goodwill but noted there have not been many complaints against Deal.
“I think there is no question that Dr. Barge has been an advocate for teachers but, of course, as state schools superintendent that is part of the job description,” Callahan said. “Whether that translates to anything beyond that is above my pay grade.”
Barge said he expected to be attacked for initially accepting a car allowance that had been eliminated, as well as his recent reimbursement to the state for an advance to pay late fees on a department credit card. He dismissed suggestions that his decision would be motivated by either the possibility of facing a well-funded Republican challenger in the superintendent’s primary or any personal ill will toward the governor.
“When we meet and we talk, things are cordial,” Barge said. “And he’s a nice guy and we get along. But sometimes I do not understand some decisions.”