Education tops Barnes' agenda this time around

Democratic candidate Roy Barnes supports teacher salary increases, smaller class sizes and a ban on teacher furloughs.

ATLANTA --- Teachers might have helped block Roy Barnes' 2002 bid for a second term as governor, but education has emerged as his signature issue as he tries to win his old job back this fall.

This time he's promising a more inclusive approach, pushing a platform full of teacher-friendly policies such as salary increases, smaller class sizes and a ban on furloughs. He also wants to bring two teachers into the governor's office to act as advisers.

Critics say the Democrat is promising more than he can deliver in lean budget times.

But Barnes says he can cobble together the roughly $1.2 billion needed to get the state's classrooms back on track, replacing "austerity cuts" made by Gov. Sonny Perdue in the past eight years.

In a recent interview, Barnes said he would get the money by halting or suspending a number of special interest tax breaks. One of those is a tax break worth $50 million aimed at those who donate money to scholarship funds for children wanting to attend private schools. Barnes said he would also change the way sales taxes are collected -- which both Democrats and Republicans agree could bring in up to $600 million in additional revenue.

Barnes said he would erase, at least temporarily, a premium tax break for insurance companies. And though he would not place a tax on groceries or prescription drugs, he would suspend for three or four years tax exemptions on a host of things such as jet fuel -- a 0.4 percent tax on about $10 billion in breaks.

"I think it's tax fairness," Barnes said, balking at the suggestion that such a move would be a tax increase. "Everybody has to bleed a little here. It's just a suspension so that we can get teachers back, get kids back in the classroom and get people back to work."

Barnes has apologized repeatedly for angering teachers during his four years in office, but the former governor isn't backing off the controversial policies that drew fire from educators.

His opponent, Republican Nathan Deal, hasn't outlined his education plan yet, despite having declared he was running for governor more than a year ago. Deal's campaign has promised to release it today but first wanted to collect responses from a teacher survey posted on the campaign Web site.

"Voters start to tune into the election after Labor Day in an election year. That is exactly when we are releasing our education plan -- when people are most interested and most likely to dig into the details," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.

Education is about half of the spending in the state budget.

Deal, a former congressman, has spoken publicly about some aspects of his education plan. He told a group of insurance agents in Duluth that schools should serve locally grown vegetables and require daily exercise to help curb growing rates of childhood obesity.

He also said teachers should be able to promote students midyear if they seem ready for the next grade and should be allowed to choose when they give standardized tests.

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