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New education lobby comes to Georgia

Posted: July 9, 2013 - 11:14pm

ATLANTA — A new organization, StudentsFirst, aims to change the dynamics of Georgia’s education politics.

For years, the battlements have been divvied up between the groups for administrators, parents, teachers and school-board members fighting for greater funding. On most issues, they generally agreed. Lately, a debate would often come down these established education groups on one side and Republicans on the other.

Since Republicans tend to see business as being better run than government, they have spent the last decade pushing reforms intended to install business-like practices in public education. In response, the established education lobby has resisted, arguing that government is more constrained than private enterprise and has a goal of universal service.

For a time, the most contrarian member of the established education lobby was the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. Founded in 1975, PAGE offered teachers an alternative to the Georgia Association of Educators, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, even though teachers can’t strike here. PAGE originally leaned more to the right, but as it grew to become the larger of the two teacher groups, its positions came closer to the GAE’s.

An outsider might speculate that the traditional parents’ advocacy, the Georgia Parent Teacher Association, would be the most sympathetic to the Republican reforms, but it has generally been aligned with the rest of the established education lobby. A homegrown parent-teacher group called EmpowerED Georgia recently joined the alliance.

The most prominent example of these dynamics is the debate over school choice. Republicans argue that giving parents school options will create competition and innovation in education. Competition will force entities to excel with existing resources.

The education groups counter that such options will leave struggling students behind and further cripple the schools responsible for educating them. Instead, they call for additional resources.

The competition-versus-funding debate came to a head in the campaign for a constitutional amendment for charter schools last year.

Now comes this new voice with a decidedly business orientation, led by Michelle Rhee, who was the chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools for three turbulent years. She left in 2010 to found StudentsFirst, which she based in Sacramento, Calf.

“The problem is that these educators and kids are trapped in a school system and a bureaucracy that is really driven by antiquated rules and policies,” she said.

Claiming 70,000 members in Georgia, StudentsFirst has already attained the size of its older rivals. And with backing by Walmart heirs from the Walton family, the billionaire Koch brothers and many for-profit school-management companies, it has the financial strength to become a potent political force.

It hired two veteran lobbyists and a press secretary and has already claimed victory in helping Gov. Nathan Deal this year pass House Bill 244 that establishes teacher evaluations based largely on student performance, legislation largely opposed by the established education lobby.

“By passing this legislation, the Georgia legislature has sent a strong message to the rest of the country – our kids deserve to have great teachers in public school classrooms,” she said at the time.

Her group also pushed legislation that would have allowed parents to vote to make their school a charter school over the objections of administrators. The bill stalled but is likely to receive another push next year.

Reaction to StudentsFirst from established groups has ranged from polite disagreement to vitriolic.

“We teach in Georgia schools, send our kids to Georgia schools, and pay taxes in support of Georgia schools. We have a personal interest in ensuring a quality public education for every child in our state,” said Matt Jones, a Toombs County high school teacher who co-founded EmpowerED. “To my knowledge, Michelle Rhee has never paid property taxes in Georgia and has never sent her children to a school in Georgia.”

Sally Fitzgerald, a lobbyist with the PTA, says Rhee is persuasive with legislators because she talks in the language of business that they use. But her distrust of educators left her deaf to valid concerns.

“In my opinion, she’s a failed superintendent,” Fitzgerald said. “She was so busy ramrodding through her ideas she never stopped to listen.”

StudentsFirst’s agenda includes boosting pay for strong teachers and streamlining the dismissal of weak ones, allowing effective charter schools to expand across district lines and closure or takeover of struggling schools. All draw opposition from the established education lobby.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@
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