ATLANTA -- The Georgia Association of Educators is the state's largest teacher group to formally back candidates, and the union's endorsement carries money and prestige.
GAE, an affiliate of the politically powerful National Education Association, is endorsing Democrats running for just about every statewide office except one: state school superintendent.
GAE has decided to sit out the race, saying neither of the two major candidates vying to run Georgia's 1.4 million-student school system -- Republican incumbent Linda Schrenko nor Democratic challenger Joe Martin -- fully measures up.
The decision is probably more a blow to Mr. Martin than Mrs. Schrenko because the group's political action committee traditionally gives its financial backing to Democrats.
Bob Cribbs, a lobbyist for GAE, indicated the organization has endorsed virtually the full Democratic statewide slate, from gubernatorial nominee Roy Barnes to Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin and Labor Commissioner hopeful Michael Thurmond.
In addition, GAE endorsed the party's three Georgia congressmen, U.S. Senate nominee Michael Coles and Democratic congressional candidate Ronald Cain.
The endorsements brought various levels of financial support. Mr. Barnes' campaign, for instance, received $5,000, and lieutenant governor nominee Mark Taylor's got $4,000, according to Mr. Cribbs.
But the organization, which represents about 34,000 educators, couldn't bring itself to endorse a candidate for an office that will have great impact on its members.
"It really came down to the fact that we measure all candidates not by their political party, but by the issues," Mr. Cribbs said. "We could not say one is more acceptable than the other."
Four years ago, GAE backed incumbent Democrat Werner Rogers, but he was upset by Mrs. Schrenko.
Mrs. Schrenko refers to the education establishment in Georgia as "The Blob," and has often been at odds with groups like GAE.
Mr. Cribbs said things have improved during the past year or so, however GAE didn't like the fact that her department recently recommended using taxpayer money for after-school reading programs at churches and private organizations.
"We feel very strongly that public funds need to remain with public schools," he said.
GAE also has questioned the recent approval of a Charter School which it says may not use certified teachers or adhere to current salary schedules.
"Her commitment was not as strong for public education as it should have been," Mr. Cribbs said.
Mr. Martin ran into trouble with the group for several reasons. Unlike Mrs. Schrenko, he's not an educator.
Also, he pushed the General Assembly for an end to tenure for school administrators. And he served on the Atlanta Board of Education during a period in which the district did not pass on the full 6 percent pay raises the state had approved for teachers.
Schrenko spokesman Rick Dent called the lack of a GAE endorsement, "a total rejection of Joe Martin and his education record.
"GAE puts education first and they always have, and they cannot in good conscience choose Joe Martin to run our schools."
When it was pointed out that the group also didn't choose Mrs. Schrenko, Mr. Dent said that was different because GAE always endorses Democrats.
Mr. Martin said the Atlanta system has the highest teacher pay in the state. And he called the elimination of administrative tenure an important reform.
"We need to hold leaders accountable not just for staying out of trouble but for the performance of the schools they lead," Mr. Martin said.
"If we ever are going to improve Georgia schools, we have to hold leaders accountable."
Mr. Martin said the GAE's decision was "revealing."
"I am a person who has been an advocate for public education. I have been pushing for change to improve education. Since there is some fear anyone pushing for constructive change may be undermining the GAE position, they chose not to endorse me. I would consider it almost to be a badge of courage."
Mr. Martin said he has been endorsed by the Georgia Federation of Teachers, the smallest of the three major teacher groups in the state.
The largest, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, does not endorse candidates or make political contributions.
However, both PAGE and GAE have put out information to members in recent months on the candidates' stands.
James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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