Originally created 02/11/01

School rhetoric cools off



What a difference a year makes.

Last year, the introduction of Gov. Roy Barnes' sweeping education reform package brought with it the ugliest political fights some lawmakers say they can remember.

Name-calling, fiery debates and noisy protests all were part of the deal, as Mr. Barnes pushed through the General Assembly a plan that increased teacher accountability, lowered class sizes and set up school councils.

This year, in a session dominated early on by talk of changing the state flag, education has been handled in whispers, not roars.

The majority of the governor's 2001 education proposals have been introduced as lines in the state budget instead of in one sweeping piece of legislation. The only such bill, a measure to end social promotions, will be introduced late this week.

Some disagreements are inevitable. And some education stakeholders, particularly teachers and the groups that represent them, are still nursing political wounds from last year's fight.

But even so, lawmakers say, no one is expecting the bare-knuckles brawling that accompanied last year's debate.

"It got hot and heavy," Sen. Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, said of the 2000 session. "We had a lot of people who got their feelings hurt. This is a more civil session."

Last year, from the moment Mr. Barnes finished announcing his plan, lawmakers and teacher groups sprang into frenzied action.

Committee meetings became pitched debates with impassioned pleas from teachers upset at the plan's goal of ending tenure for new hires. Hundreds of teachers massed at the state Capitol, chanting and waving signs urging legislators to vote against the bill.

A coalition of business executives countered, bankrolling a $1 million ad campaign urging support for the governor's plan.

The rhetoric wasn't always pretty.

The state's Democratic Party chairman called Republican School Superintendent Linda Schrenko "No Account Linda" for her comments opposing teacher accountability provisions. One Republican said the plan grew big government "faster than kudzu on steroids," while others called Mr. Barnes power-hungry, comparing him to a king, a self-styled god and even Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Sen. Joey Brush, R-Augusta, the author of the kudzu comment and a vocal education bill opponent in 2000, later blamed the governor's office for tipping off the media that he had tried to fix a traffic ticket.

In contrast, the hottest debate at a House Education Committee meeting last week centered on whether parents should be included on a list of people exempted from a bill that would make it easier to arrest trespassers on school property.

Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, who leads the committee, said that while last year's reform package introduced new, and sometimes controversial, ideas, much of this year's work is the nuts-and-bolts job of putting the plan into action.

"As the programs in that bill were implemented, we knew we would find the strengths and weaknesses in it," she said.

The governor's revised 2001 budget calls for $468 million to help school systems build new classrooms to meet the previous bill's requirement for smaller class sizes. His 2002 budget calls for $68.5 million to pay for teacher's aides in kindergarten classes, in addition to money for tutoring for slow learners and other new programs.

Officials from some school districts had said they would have to lay off aides to pay for the extra teachers needed to meet the 2000 bill's demands.

The new money for classrooms and aides is good news to the same teacher groups that fought Mr. Barnes last year. The groups say the atmosphere under the Gold Dome this year is a world away from last year's session.

"It is certainly much quieter - less contentious," said Barbara Christmas, executive vice president of the 48,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "A lot of people learned a lot of lessons last year about listening to each other."

But teachers haven't forgotten a debate in which they felt like Mr. Barnes blamed them for much of Georgia schools' failings, Ms. Christmas said.

"Teachers are still angry about last year's rhetoric. There's no getting around it," she said. "The teacher morale still needs some work."

Mr. Walker said Democratic leaders, who usually count educators among their core supporters, realize there's still work to do.

"We're trying to mend fences," he said. "We all need to be pulling in the same direction."

And while Republicans say they support the principles Mr. Barnes has said this year's education bill will contain, they won't be giving him a free ride.

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, read from a biography of Mrs. Clinton during last year's debate, comparing Mr. Barnes' tactics to those used by the Clintons in Arkansas. He went to the comparison again last week, saying Mr. Barnes co-opted Republican ideas in his education package, then changed them with details that created more government control.

"He is just like Bill Clinton in that he'll say the right things, but you've got to watch his bills," Mr. Johnson said. "We like what he said, but until you see the bill, you can't commit."

Still, GOP lawmakers say they're comfortable enough with Mr. Barnes' current agenda that they won't turn upcoming debates into Round Two of last year's fight.

"It will not be the brouhaha that it was last year," said Rep. Anne Mueller, R-Savannah. "Some of the stuff he's talking about, our system already does. Last year was just a far-sweeping thing."

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.