As you sort out the pros and cons of Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, one of the more important things to remember is this:
Before Nathan Deal was born in 1942, but while the future governor was still in the womb, his father got crossways with the powerful Gillis family, which ran Treutlen County and its school board. Noah Deal was booted from his south Georgia teaching job – and out of the county.
“My family has experienced when politics becomes a dominant factor in public education,” Deal told a group of educators two years ago, as he ran for re-election. “My family actually had to move on one occasion, because of internal politics within a local school system.”
Amendment 1 is the constitutional proposal that would allow the state, each year, to take control of up to 20 schools that have been deemed “failing” for three years running.
A Journal-Constitution poll last week showed 59 percent of likely voters opposed the measure. But the question posed in the survey laid out the argument for and against. The question on your ballot is worded more enthusiastically, shall we say, and so proponents still have some reason to hope for victory.
Opponents of the governor’s proposal – and Deal has indeed put himself forward as the face of the campaign – are of two flavors. There are those who say Amendment 1 doesn’t recognize that, more than anything else, poverty is the greatest hurdle for schools that fail to reach their students. A change in administration doesn’t fix that.
Then there are those who see local control as a sacred principle that shouldn’t be violated. Local control is guaranteed by the state constitution, after all – which is why a constitutional amendment is required to change it.
Proponents of Amendment 1 are of a different mind. Yes, poverty is a factor, but not the only one, they argue. Yes, local control is important, but not sacrosanct.
Far from being perfect, local school boards can be incompetent or corrupt. They can be more concerned about patronage than students. School board members can be so fixated on re-election that they prefer to starve their classrooms when it comes to the taxes required to run them.
This is why that tidbit of Deal family history is so important. The governor didn’t just acquire a deep skepticism of school board politics. He was born with it.
We asked the governor to elaborate on his family’s personal experience. He declined. But you can hear that history in his frustration with the school boards that are lining up against him – many in quite conservative territories.
“Monopolies, as a general rule, have no competition and see no reason to change,” Deal told my AJC colleague Greg Bluestein in an interview. “I would expect them to show some evidence that they’re willing to change.
“We have relegated the authority to these local school boards forever, and the result is exactly what we’re up against now. I don’t think anybody is really satisfied with that now,” he said.
Defeat has serious implications. Come January and the new session of the Legislature, the second-term governor intends to recast the formula for the billions of dollars the state sends to local school systems – a balancing act that could pit Georgia’s poorest counties against its richest.
Rejection of Amendment 1 could be seen as a sign of diminished clout, which could make negotiations with state lawmakers more difficult. That may be one reason that the governor’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, is already sending signals of future retribution – asking school systems to explain how they use payroll deductions to collect teachers’ dues for membership in teacher organizations.
The National Education Association is financing most of the opposition to Amendment 1 with $2 million.
The best measure of Deal’s personal investment in Amendment 1 is the fact that – as we mentioned – he has become the campaign’s face and voice. Polls tell us that Deal remains a popular governor, but such a move carries some risk.
Take messaging, for instance. It can be hard for underlings to tell a governor that his phrasing is a bit off.
One of the better justifications for Amendment 1 is that Georgia’s high school dropouts are more likely to wind up in prison than non-dropouts. Many African-Americans – if not most – rightly think we are too quick to lock up their sons. Amendment 1, supporters say, would disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
But in an apparent effort to reach conservative Republicans, or voters who think Amendment 1 has nothing to do with their excellent school systems, Deal has altered the prison argument somewhat.
In that interview with Bluestein, Deal said he had a warning for conservatives who might view persistently failing schools as an abstract problem. The students who drop out of those schools are “more likely to go into a life of crime,” the governor said, “and they’re going to branch out.”
“They’re going to go to those school systems where people are more affluent. Where they have cars that they can hijack. Where they have houses they can burglarize. Where they can find victims for whatever criminal activity they are pursuing,” he said. “So it does impact us all from a criminal standpoint.”
At a state Capitol event on Wednesday, my colleague was part of the scrum when the topic was pursued. Deal said there was no dog whistle in his earlier remarks.
“It’s the facts of life. If a criminal is a burglar, they’re going to go to homes that have something worth burglarizing. If the criminal is somebody who is going to steal a car, they’re going to find the best car they can in order to steal that. It has no racial overtones at all,” the governor said. “It’s a matter of fact.”
In 2012, Deal was behind the successful campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to allow the state to create charter schools in local jurisdictions. It succeeded in large part because the governor was able to attract the support of African-Americans who have their own personal histories with a dysfunctional education system.
This isn’t that campaign.