News Analysis: GOP focuses on education

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ATLANTA - One of the truisms of politics has Democrats supporting public education and Republicans trying to tear it down, but the current crop of GOP leaders aims to turn that inside out.

Whether they'll succeed depends on your view of what helps public education.

Gov. Sonny Perdue often says education is his highest priority, and it is as defined by the percentage of his budget proposal devoted to it. But then, he could hardly cut education enough to make spending on it drop below the second-place item, health care, which is less than half the education total.

Just because bass fishing and Civil War tourism came up in his State of the State address before education doesn't necessarily mean he's anti-intellectual. After all, he has an advanced degree as a veterinarian.

On Wednesday, he told the lawmakers who write the budget that Georgia was the first state to recognize the link between jobs and education, as illustrated by enactment of the HOPE Scholarship. Plenty of people would probably debate that contention, but he went on to say that he's not inclined to ignore education.

"We're not where we want to be. We've made great strides, but none of us are satisfied with where we are," he said.

His big idea for education this session: middle-school graduation coaches. One wag joked that it was because research had shown that too many of Georgia's sixth-graders aren't on track to graduate during the next four years - echoing the rationale used to justify putting graduation coaches in every high school.

Mr. Perdue isn't the only GOP leader singing the education hymn. As notes Rep. Brooks Coleman, the chairman of the House Education Committee, practically every successful candidate in November made some campaign promises regarding education to get elected.

They were smart to do so. The latest survey from the University of Georgia's Peach State Poll shows education is the top-ranked issue, with twice the response as the economy and half again as many as immigration and crime.

Mr. Coleman, though, is no Johnny-come-lately to interest in education. He's a former teacher who now gives motivational speeches to educators across the country.

In days passed, Democrats owned the education issue, partly by calling continually for increased funding, especially for teacher raises. Teacher pay generally has been the top concern of the Georgia Association of Educators, which usually endorses Democrats, so there's been a certain reciprocity.

But Republicans are no longer yielding the issue to the competition. Even the president of the Georgia educators group, Jeff Hubbard, appeared to notice the new wind blowing when he offered reporters his reaction to Mr. Perdue's State of the State address and a 3 percent pay raise.

Despite the raise just matching the inflation rate, Mr. Hubbard's most critical comment was, "We would have liked to have seen it go to the 4 percent of last year."

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.


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