Deal wants to ax U.S. ed department, won't rule out more furloughs

Nathan Deal

Nathan Deal wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, won't rule out more teacher furloughs and once backed private school "vouchers."

So the Republican governor hopeful may face tough questions today at an education group's candidates forum in Atlanta.

Attempting to burnish his credentials on education issues, Deal last week released a plan to upgrade Georgia's schools.

He and Democrat Roy Barnes, trying to win back his old job, are due to participate in a forum sponsored by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Deal told the Chattanooga Free Press he's for "the elimination" of the education department and said its funds were "not going to the children."

"The federal government does not need to be in the business of operating local schools," he also said.

He told the Athens Banner-Herald there might have to be more unpaid days off for teachers and it was "unrealistic" to rule them out.

He also voted to continue "vouchers" - federal money to help parents in Washington, D.C., send their children to private schools. Congress killed the program last year.

Such positions are popular with his conservative supporters. But they don't sit well with groups representing Georgia's 125,000 or so public school teachers.

Together with their families, school administrators and other school employees, the teachers represent a powerful voting bloc.

The groups' strongest sentiments concern furloughs.

"Balancing the budget on the backs of Georgia's ... teacher families and on our more than 1.6 million students is not the way to go," Professional Association of Georgia Educators spokesman Tim Callahan said last year.

The association and other statewide teacher groups also have opposed vouchers.

Barnes, who recently won the endorsement of the biggest group, the Georgia Association of Educators, also rejects Deal's positions.

Barnes spokeswoman Anna Ruth Williams underscored that point Tuesday.

"Deal," Williams said, "waited until eight weeks before Election Day to develop a plan for education, at which point he said he would open the door to school vouchers and continue teacher furloughs."

"When Roy was governor, he kept class sizes low and increased teacher pay - all without furloughing a single teacher.

"Roy's priority has been education - that's why ... he's visited over 90 counties, listening to Georgia's educators and developing a comprehensive plan to make education work in Georgia again."

But Deal spokesman Brian Robinson defended the former congressman's positions.

Robinson said Deal thinks local school officials should have flexibility in spending federal money and be held accountable.

"We don't need Washington bureaucrats setting one-size-fits-all education policy." Robinson said. "Nathan believes the same principles hold true in Georgia. We don't need state bureaucrats forcing one-size-fits-all models on local school districts."

Robinson said ending furloughs will be Deal's top priority if state revenues improve.

But, if they don't, Georgia "could face a bleak budget picture," he said.

Barnes "has promised everything to everybody," but the only way to pay for it is higher taxes, he said.

Robinson said the Washington, D.C., program was a response to "chronically failing" public schools. He said the program was "wildly successful and highly popular with families involved in it."

In Georgia, Robinson says, Deal believes "funding our public schools has to be our top priority."

He backs alternatives for children in failing schools - such as charter schools - but not "at the expense of the 94 percent of Georgia students who attend our state's public schools," Robinson said.

Robinson also took a potshot at Barnes.

Under Barnes, he said, Georgia fell to 50th in the nation in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

Citing the theme of his candidate's new TV ad, he said Deal will "get it right the first time" with his schools plan.

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