Gov. Nathan Deal pledges ‘everything on the table’ public education reform

Published 6:11 pm Friday, October 24, 2014

Last week Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter shared via this column his vision for public education in Georgia.

This week, incumbent Republican Gov. Deal talks about his plans for public education in a second and final term as the state’s chief executive.

What he told me came as a bit of a surprise. I suspect it will be as well for members of the General Assembly reading this: The governor intends a top-to-bottom review of public education in Georgia in his second term.

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“I am going to put together an education reform group much as I did with criminal justice reform. Everything regarding public education will be on the table,” he said. “The committee will include all those who have a role to play in public education and I will take all of my final term in office to see we do it right.”

The governor successfully engineered a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system in his first term beginning with the formation of a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

“I was told criminal justice reform was a risk politically,” he recalls, “but it was the right thing to do. I got tremendous bipartisan support and as a result we are changing lives for the better in Georgia. I intend to do the same thing with education reform.”  (As information: I am a member of the State Board of Juvenile Justice, appointed by Gov. Deal in 2012.)

The governor likens his plan to Gov. Joe Frank Harris’s Quality Basic Education Act of 1984, which fundamentally changed how public education was to be funded in Georgia. Harris created a blue-ribbon, statewide commission to look at all aspects of the issue. (Then-state Sen. Nathan Deal saw the exercise up-close and personal.)

I had a role in that effort. Working with the governor and his chief of staff Tom Perdue, my job was to build a broad-based coalition in support of legislation that resulted from the commission’s deliberations and to roll any opposition. It worked. QBE passed unanimously. The opposition was road-kill. It is one of my prouder moments.

My experience with QBE suggests Deal’s intentions for education reform should be taken seriously. If he makes it to a second term — and it will be close — the governor can shape the makeup of the commission and focus the debate. Erin Hames, Deal’s deputy chief of staff and education policy advisor, says her boss would encourage legislation in the next session that would support his reform effort and discourage measures that didn’t.

We also discussed the governor’s education priorities. One of his ongoing efforts is to get all third-graders reading at that grade level. “Studies have shown that if children have not developed their reading skills by third grade, it will be hard for them to ever catch up. That hurts the students and costs us money for remediation,” he says.

The governor remains strongly committed to charter schools and expressed frustration at the obstacles thrown up by some school districts, even after the state’s Charter Commission has given its approval. He intends to see that corrected in his next term and is talking about a constitutional amendment to do so. Deal says he wants to keep good teachers in the classroom. “Too often,” he says, “good teachers leave the classroom and go into administration to make more money. We have to change that. I want us to have our best and most effective teachers in the classroom with the students.” He believes the new evaluation system will help identify and better reward those teachers.

We talked about giving schools more flexibility and what can be done to turn around failing schools and the roles that parents should but often don’t play in their children’s education.

I asked the governor what he wanted to say to school teachers. He said, “I thank them for their service. As the son of two school teachers and being married to one, I know how hard their job is and the long hours involved. Teachers get blamed for a lot that is not their fault. I intend to change that. I want to restore the joy to teaching.”

One way to do that and the other things Gov. Deal has on his education plate would be to task a blue-ribbon, statewide education reform commission with the responsibilities for making it happen. This could change the face of public education for decades to come. It will be interesting to see if voters give him that opportunity.