Originally created 02/22/99

Isakson may be missed



ATLANTA -- Two years after being given the task of bringing consensus to a state education leadership torn by strife, Georgia Board of Education Chairman Johnny Isakson may be about to leave for Congress.

But Gov. Roy Barnes is vowing to look for a successor with the same qualities that have earned Mr. Isakson widespread praise from the education community: an ability to motivate people with different views to work together and a commitment to pragmatism over partisan politics.

"If he could clone Johnny, he would," said Gary Horlacher, Mr. Barnes' spokesman. "He admires Johnny and what he's done there."

Mr. Isakson is a heavy favorite to win Tuesday's 6th Congressional District special election to succeed former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Isakson is the only one of seven candidates who has served in public office, having spent 17 years in the General Assembly.

He also has raised just more than $1 million since mid-November, dwarfing his next-closest opponent, Christina Jeffrey, who has raised about $136,000.

None of the other candidates has raised more than $12,000.

Before Mr. Isakson came on the scene, the state education agency was caught in a volatile power struggle between Georgia schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko, a Republican, and a board filled with Democrats.

Then-Gov. Zell Miller called on Mr. Isakson, a moderate Republican known for his ability to work with Democrats, to bring the two sides together.

"He let me have a lot of input in the new board members," Mr. Isakson said. "We demonstrated from the beginning that we wanted to be cooperative and find consensus."

Mr. Isakson's attitude wasn't lost on Mrs. Schrenko.

"He was the first person to reach out to me and say, `I want to help you,"' she said.

At first, Mrs. Schrenko said, Mr. Isakson's contributions were primarily general in nature. He used his connections with state lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- to win support for the state Department of Education's initiatives and acted as an ambassador for public education in speeches before school and civic groups.

"He understands the process of getting things done ... and he understands who the major players are in the state," said Gary Ashley, executive vice president of the Georgia School Boards Association.

Mrs. Schrenko said Mr. Isakson began to prioritize the issues he wanted to concentrate on as he became more comfortable in his role.

"He really got enamored with reading," she said. "He literally went and lobbied almost on a daily basis to get and keep money in the budget for the (phonics-based) Reading First program and the after-school reading program."

Mr. Isakson's campaign commercials emphasize his interest and role in education. The time he has spent as board chairman enhances his attractiveness as a candidate, especially at a time when the public has identified education as a national priority, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

"It's good politics to run as a friend of education," he said.

During the campaign, Mr. Isakson has pledged to work in Congress for greater local control in educational policy decisions, in keeping with Republican philosophy.

"Special-ed kids with special needs deserve some commonality of services by federal law," he said. "But taxpayers locally pay for the rest of it. They should be the ones running it."

However, Ms. Jeffrey, a professor at Kennesaw State University, questions Mr. Isakson's commitment to local control in light of a $5,000 contribution his campaign received from the National Education Association.

The NEA, the country's largest teachers union, supports Clinton administration school-construction and teacher-hiring initiatives that conservatives criticize as a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

"I've never known them to support a conservative," Ms. Jeffrey said.

Still, Mrs. Schrenko, who donated $1,000 to Mr. Isakson's campaign, said his experience as state board chairman will give him the know-how to look for ways the federal government can help local educators instead of burdening them.

"Johnny's seen the nightmare of red tape," she said. "He's going to make sure not to do things that tie up local systems in red tape and bureaucracy."

If Mr. Isakson wins the congressional race, his successor on the state school board will be tested quickly. Mr. Barnes plans to convene a task force to review Georgia's decade-old Quality Basic Education Act this summer.

The governor also will appoint a new majority on the Georgia Board of Education.

Dave Williams is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.