Analysis: The politics of education is complex

Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 1:04 PM
Last updated 8:40 PM
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ATLANTA — Two of the biggest issues to emerge in this legislative session both involve education: the HOPE Scholarship and charter schools.

That’s because they dwell on basic human concerns of fairness and promise for the next generation. They also play a colossal role in taxes and economic development — less noble matters but just as visceral to most voters. As a result, discussion of them brings forth lots of emotion.

Unlike most contentious issues under the Gold Dome, those dealing with education don’t necessarily divide along the usual fault lines of party, race or geography.

Take, for instance, the issue of charter schools. Ever since a 4-3 decision in the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the charter-funding law, supporters of the independent public schools have pushed a constitutional amendment to trump the court.

The voided law allowed the state to grant charters to private individuals who started schools over the objections of their local school board. It also permitted the state to divert part of the state’s appropriation to the charter school that would have otherwise gone to that local district.

The trade associations of school administrators and teachers oppose the amendment because they say it would take money away from traditional schools that are already struggling from years of tight budgets. On the other hand, the state’s chambers of commerce favor it as a way to bring new ideas to public education.

When the House voted Wednesday, it fell 10 votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage as a constitutional amendment. A handful of Democrats voted with most of the Republicans for it, but a handful of Republicans joined most of the Democrats in opposition.

One of the Democrats for it, Rep. Alisha Morgan of the upscale Atlanta suburb of Austell, noted that the vast majority of students in charter schools qualify for free lunch. Yet Republicans like Rep. Ben Harbin from Evans and Rep. Jason Spencer of Woodbine gave it a thumbs down.

The House will vote again on the measure whenever the speaker decides, and there will be plenty of arm twisting between now and then.

The HOPE Scholarship brings its own dynamics to the Capitol. The realization that last year’s modifications won’t prevent an eventual deficit prompted Democrats and the Black Caucus to come forth with different proposals for preserving it.

Democrats propose an income cap, so that it’s only available to kids from families who earn less than $100,000 per year. Of course, there’s little doubt that the families in the higher income bracket are more likely to vote Republican, so the majority party will never go along.

Members of the Black Caucus, who are all also Democrats, unveiled a legislative package Thursday that would ration HOPE Scholarships two ways. First, it would be allocated to match the regions where Georgia Lottery tickets are purchased so gamblers in rural areas would no longer subsidize the education of suburban children. Second, no college or university would get more than a set amount of scholarship money so the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech would no longer claim 86 percent of the scholars but instead share equally with schools like Savannah State University and the College of Coastal Georgia. A drawing would decide which of the qualified students get the scholarship and which are left out.

Such rationing is likely to set off opposition within the higher-education establishment and the thousands of articulate, social-networked students who would see their benefits end. It’s hard to see a GOP committee chairman even holding a hearing on this package, much less a vote, unless it’s for the purpose of trying to embarrass the caucus.

All of the policy arguments that might justify such rationing are unlikely to overcome the outcry of the vocal community that has a personal interest in maintaining the status quo: a group that also has enough free time to come to the Capitol for mass demonstrations.

Gov. Nathan Deal started last week by showcasing his own proposal to try to deflate the Democrats and the caucus’ “fairness” argument. He announced he is rounding up corporate donors to fund a needs-based scholarship targeted at sixth-graders from low-income families. By week’s end, UGA volunteered to pitch in, not by lowering tuition so those families could swing the cost themselves but by contributing money other families pay in tuition to help Deal’s scholarship.

Deal has said he doesn’t want to monkey with the HOPE structure this year to give last year’s changes time to take effect. He may be saying that an election year is no time to alarm suburban voters.

Another major education issue is due to emerge next year anyway. That’s when a commission Deal appointed is supposed to make recommendations about funding K-12 public schools. Indications suggest it will have little choice but to call for significantly more funding, which will launch another huge political battle.

Because education is the government’s largest expense, along with health care, and because it is so critical to economic development, even voters who have no school-age children have a stake in the debate. And that guarantees it will always be a major topic in the General Assembly every year.


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