School Reforms May Ripple in Election Angry Georgia Voters Might Strike with Ballots

Article excerpt

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 more 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.

Yet others contend the controversy is an insider issue because most people favor the positive points of school reform.

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 over the law's specifics, especially the estimated 7,000 -- mostly teacher aides -- who lost their jobs as a result.

"Now they're faced with the reality of an angry electorate, angry parents," said state Superintendent of Schools 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."

Schrenko is crisscrossing the state holding 26 of what she calls non-partisan town hall meetings on the bill, drawing roughly 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.

During thedebate, Schrenko and Senate Republicans aligned themselves with the 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."

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. …