When Roy E. Barnes assumed office as the governor of Georgia, Barbara Christmas, among many members of the education community, had hoped that he would prioritize education. However, she now admits that she did not want education to be the primary focus from the beginning. Ms. Christmas, a prominent official of a nonunion teachers’ group with 49,000 members in the state, is not alone in her opinion that the Democratic governor has tackled various school issues with great determination. In just two and a half years, he has successfully passed legislation that rewards schools based on student achievement, provides assistance to struggling schools, and eliminates tenure for newly hired teachers. Moreover, he has managed to pass a highly debated initiative that puts an end to social promotion by requiring students to pass state tests to progress to higher grades.
Observers believe that the governor, a trial lawyer by profession who has served in both the state House and Senate, is approaching challenging educational issues with the same level of commitment and thoroughness as he used to prepare for his legal cases. "He is one of the most intelligent politicians I have ever met," said Carl D. Glickman, an education professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. "He is well-read." However, there have been instances where the governor’s political skills have been subject to debate. Mr. Barnes has not held back from putting pressure on educators in his efforts to improve Georgia’s low standing in educational rankings. In doing so, he has offended influential interest groups.
Last year, the governor faced criticism from teachers when he blamed educators for low student performance and included a provision to eliminate tenure for newly hired teachers in his education package. Teachers felt that the governor was unfairly targeting them. Nevertheless, Gov. Barnes defended his actions, stating during a recent interview in his state Capitol office, "There are those who said I was too harsh, but I am passionate about this."
The Georgia Association of Educators, feeling that Gov. Barnes had gone too far, sought support from Linda C. Schrenko, the elected Republican state schools superintendent and the governor’s staunchest critic, to speak against eliminating tenure. However, this year, the same group has commended the law against social promotion. Ralph B. Noble, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, hailed the plan as a "significant victory for classroom teachers." Gov. Barnes attributes the educators’ change of heart to several factors. Firstly, the release of scores on the state’s "criterion-referenced competency test" last summer revealed that 35% of 4th graders did not meet state reading standards, and nearly half of 8th graders did not meet the math standards. Additionally, President Bush’s emphasis on accountability and his national education agenda after assuming office in January aligned with Gov. Barnes’ goals. "The conversation shifted. No one said we don’t need to do this," remarked the governor.
Nonetheless, there are critics who oppose the latest education package in Georgia, arguing that making student promotion and retention decisions based on one test result is unjust, particularly for minority students who have historically performed worse than their white peers on standardized tests.
Some experts believe that there may be revisions to this year’s social-promotion law before it is implemented with 3rd graders in 2003-04. Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, suggests that the initial plan is often adjusted based on the reality of the situation. Additionally, there are indications that the governor may be more open to negotiation than he appears. Last year, Governor Barnes made a controversial decision to eliminate the use of paraprofessionals in the early grades, but he has since acknowledged the need for them after receiving feedback from teachers. Even his opponent, Ms. Schrenko, has acknowledged the wisdom gained from experience. Governor Barnes has also addressed concerns about the lack of classroom space by allocating funds for classroom construction. Apart from facilities, the governor also faces the challenge of the funding gap between rich and poor districts. Although the state has attempted to send more money to poor districts, there are still concerns about providing equal opportunities for students in these districts. However, there is hope that these concerns will be addressed politically after discussions with Governor Barnes. While the governor is respected for his commitment to improving schools, his opponent accuses him of limiting the power of the state education department. Some education leaders believe that both candidates have played a role in the department’s weaknesses. Despite criticism, Ms. Schrenko remains determined and sees the possibility of losing as a chance for personal growth. The Democratic Party takes Ms. Schrenko’s challenge seriously, but many voters support Governor Barnes. However, some worry that a race between the two may overshadow the focus on education in Georgia. There are concerns about the impact of a yearlong political campaign on the reform law.