As they moved through the first few days of their general election campaign for governor, Nathan Deal and Roy Barnes focused their attention on this burning issue: the proposed construction of a mosque two blocks from the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.
Barnes came down four-square against the structure: "It is too painful and divisive to build a mosque there."
Deal assured voters that he also was "absolutely opposed" to the proposed mosque, which he said would be "an insult."
At the risk of spoiling the party, I feel compelled to point out that the building of a mosque in New York will have no impact, positive or negative, on any of the major problems that Georgia's next governor will confront, whether it's overcrowded highways, massive budget deficits, or a lack of clean drinking water.
Perhaps we should be paying attention instead to issues that hit a little closer to home, such as the condition of our public education system.
One of the more significant achievements of Gov. Sonny Perdue during his two terms as Georgia's chief executive has been an unprecedented cutoff in state funding for local school systems.
From the time of Carl Sanders until now, a top priority of every governor had been to upgrade the state's public schools by devoting more financial resources to education. Every governor, it seemed, wanted to be known as an "education governor."
That trend came to a dead stop under Perdue. He apparently felt state government was spending too much money, rather than too little, on public schools. Because he was governor, he was in a position to do something about that - and he did.
The state budget provides money to local school systems through a funding formula developed under Gov. Joe Frank Harris that is known as Quality Basic Education, or QBE.
Starting with the first budget he signed in 2003, Perdue recommended and the Legislature agreed each year to cut hundreds of millions in QBE funding to local systems. By the time we reach the end of the current fiscal year, the combined amount of those QBE funding reductions will total more than $4.3 billion.
In other words, during every year of the Perdue administration the state cut an average of half a billion dollars in formula funding to local school systems.
To be fair, some of those "austerity" cuts were made during bad economic times for the state. When Perdue first took office, Georgia was still coming out of the recession that was aggravated by the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The last two years of Perdue's second term have coincided with the recession triggered by the collapse of the housing and real estate industry.
But even during the interlude when the economy was in better shape, Perdue and the Legislature continued to slash formula funding for schools. These reductions amounted to $169.7 million in the fiscal year 2007 budget and $142.9 million in the fiscal year 2008 budget.
What have these funding reductions done for our students? Georgia still ranks in the bottom 10 percent of states in average SAT scores. We have one of the worst dropout rates in the nation. Shortly before she stepped down as state school superintendent, Kathy Cox noted that we now provide state funding for only 147 of the 180 days that make up a school year.
It would be nice if voters knew whether the candidates for governor want to continue these spending reductions or reverse that trend.
Deal has said he wants to get rid of the state income tax, a move that would eliminate more than half of the revenue that goes into the state budget. Does he intend to continue cutting funds for education so that he can axe the tax?
Barnes has indicated he wants to spend more on public education. How does he intend to get the money to do that in a budget that has already shrunk by more than $3 billion in two years because of the recession?
We would be better served if the candidates would begin discussing the real issue of education rather than waste time with bogus issues such as a proposal to build a mosque in a faraway city. Is that too much to hope for?
(Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)
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