ATLANTA - Legislative candidates from both major parties are working overtime this fall to convince Georgia voters they have the best solution to the No. 1 issue in poll after poll: public education.
Democrats say they started the reform process by passing a sweeping law earlier this year and that they plan to perfect it and complete the job when the General Assembly convenes in January. They point to requirements for smaller classes and increased accountability.
Republicans, on the other hand, argue that the reform law created more problems than it solved by consolidating power in the governor's office, adding layers of bureaucracy and prompting local school boards to raise taxes.
At nearly 175 pages, the reform law contains enough provisions to stock supporters and foes with ammunition for several campaigns. It's also so complicated most voters can't grasp all the details, relying on interpretation from people they trust.
GOP candidates are hoping voters will rely on friends and neighbors who work in schools for that interpretation. Even Democratic consultants recognize the level of hostility educators feel toward the law's specifics, especially the estimated 7,000 - mostly teacher's aides - who lost their jobs as a result.
"Now they're faced with the reality of an angry electorate, angry parents," said state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko, a Republican who predicted the law would have adverse consequences. "Up until the time school actually started, the governor refuted what I said with his rhetoric. ... The day that school opened, what I said came true."
Mrs. Schrenko is crisscrossing the state, holding 26 of what she calls nonpartisan town hall meetings on the bill, drawing approximately 200 people each night. Plus, she has coached a couple dozen Republican legislative candidates on how to run against Democrats who voted for the law in the General Assembly.
During the legislative debate on the bill, Mrs. Schrenko and Senate Republicans aligned themselves with 90,000 teachers in opposing the elimination of tenure for beginning educators. As a result, teachers, a group that has traditionally been solidly behind Democrats, have begun volunteering for and contributing to Republicans.
"We have access to teacher organizations that we've never had before," said Robert Trim, a Republican campaign consultant from Woodstock. "They are holding coffees and little social events for us."
Mrs. Schrenko notes that all of the lawmakers defeated in the July primary voted for the law, but so did a majority of legislators.
Those defeats have caused other lawmakers who voted for the bill to temper their comments about education reform in their re-election campaigns, according to James E. "Jet" Toney, executive vice president of Cornerstone Communications, a consulting firm with candidates from both major parties.
"I think you're seeing some Democrats on the trail say, `We're glad we tinkered with education, but we're going to have to go back and revisit some issues,"' he said.
Gov. Roy Barnes has already called on his Education Reform Commission for a second round of recommendations, some to correct problems caused by the first stab at school legislation. Also, House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, announced the next session will include the largest school-construction budget in state history as a way to cope with the class-size provisions of the 2000 reform law.
Other Democrats, though, say the issue won't hurt them.
"Except for the insiders, the people in teaching, it's not presenting the huff and puff you would think," said Steve Anthony, an Atlanta-based political consultant.
"There is some concern about education," he said. "But I've been around a long time, and this is like the concern about (the Quality Basic Education Act) when it was passed. It's just that there is someone else out there from the other party stirring things up."
Mr. Anthony, a former executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, said the polling he's done shows that voters overwhelmingly support smaller classes and greater accountability. But he admits he hasn't asked whether voters think the law will succeed in addressing those factors.
Rep. Bob Irvin, the House Republican leader, put it another way.
"I think the public wants to see education reform," he said. "But I think it's not clear what people think ought to be done. ... It's not clear what the winning prescription is."
And other Democrats predict that the newly passed reform will help them and put Republicans on the defensive.
"Virtually every Republican senator and most Republicans in the House are having to defend why they are for larger classes, lower standards and having less parental involvement," said John Kirincich, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party. "That's not a winning message."
Complicating the issue further is the presidential campaign, since both major-party candidates offer their own solutions to public school problems. Ironically, many of the concepts Mr. Barnes included in his plan were borrowed from Texas, where Republican nominee George W. Bush is governor.
Republicans here say Mr. Barnes distorted Mr. Bush's approach by adding layers of administration in an effort to consolidate power in the governor's office. There are vast differences between the Bush program and the Barnes program, but most of them are probably lost on the average voter, political insiders say.
Even Mrs. Schrenko admits that teachers are just as likely to vote for Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, as for Mr. Bush, and almost certainly will support Democrat Zell Miller for U.S. senator while voting for Republicans in legislative races.
What other voters will do remains to be seen Nov. 7.
Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.
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