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Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - 3:57pm

Teacher Group Backs Carter for Governor

The only professional teacher organization in Georgia that endorses political candidates has swung its weight behind Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Jason Carter.

The Georgia Association of Educators announced its endorsement Wednesday outside of Grady High School in Atlanta where Carter’s wife, Kate, taught for six years.

The endorsement wasn’t a surprise. The group normally backs Democrats. But GAE president Sid Chapman said the group sometimes withholds endorsements, and considered not endorsing anyone this year. GAE notably did not endorse Democratic Governor Roy Barnes in 2002, and he went on to lose to Republican Sonny Perdue.

Chapman said the group decided to endorse Carter after Gov. Nathan Deal failed to provide any information to the group.

“A questionnaire was sent,” Chapman said in an interview. “He did not respond. I personally asked several times for our staff to contact his office and to come for an interview, and he declined to do so. So he did not deem it important to talk to us and if you do not deem it important to talk to us, then you can’t be considered.”

Teachers Cite Budget Cuts And 'Toxic' Testing Environment

Chapman cited the “toxic testing environment” and the overcrowded classrooms produced by years of draconian budget cuts to education that he says are making it difficult for teachers to do their jobs. He said public education has become a “political football.”

“GAE has come to the conclusion that a change is needed in the Governor’s office,” he said at the event. “Our current Governor has overseen a demoralizing dismantling of our public education system in Georgia. This trend must stop.”

As for what Chapman hopes Carter will do, it revolves largely around one thing: teacher raises.

“It’s been just little bitty pots of money that have been sent down to school systems and the tax bases for the local districts have already been cut so salaries have been flat for six years,” Chapman said.

For his part, Carter, a state Senator from Decatur, repeated his point that Deal’s cuts to education have resulted in a funding shift from reliance on state tax dollars to local ones.

Carter: State Budget Cuts Equal Local Tax Increases

“You have watched the Governor’s education cuts become tax increases in 91 school districts,” he said. “My plan is a plan to undo the damage that has been done by that budgeting scheme.”

He calls for a separate education budget that would be funded first before other spending priorities.

A spokesman for Gov. Deal dismissed the GAE endorsement and disputed Chapman’s claim about a lack of cooperation on the Governor’s part in connection with the endorsement process.

Brian Robinson said Gov. Deal filled out an extensive questionnaire for GAE’s magazine. And he said GAE nearly always endorses Democrats.

“This is an organization with a partisan history that is not representative of teachers as a whole across the state,” he said.

Carter Nixed State Budget That Upped School Spending

Robinson said education has been Deal’s top priority and that he counts many teachers among his supporters. He said Deal protected schools from deeper budget cuts that befell other state agencies during the early years after the Recession. And he repeated the point that Carter voted against the 2015 budget, which includes more money for education.

“What’s ironic is that the budget he voted against was the largest education spending increase in 7 years – more than half a billion dollars,” Robinson said. “We have always prioritized education spending.”

There are 180,000 teachers in Georgia. The GAE has 42,000 members. To what extent the endorsement bolsters support for Carter remains to be seen. If the group is able to quickly mobilize its members in campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts, the endorsement could pay big dividends. And that’s Carter’s hope.

“We will see the impact – we have seen it in elections past, the power that educators have in this state to influence elections,” Carter told the crowd of teachers, students and reporters. “I believe we will be able to galvanize support from education voters all over the state.”

Will Endorsement Mobilize Teachers?

Chapman said his group has not decided how much money it will spend on Carter. And he said the GAE is still planning its campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts.

It’s unclear how much the endorsement reflects the majority of teachers, or whether it will influence non-educators to support Carter. GAE isn’t the largest teacher group in Georgia. That’s the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which as a policy doesn’t endorse political candidates.

But the group does inform its members extensively about elections and candidates, said spokesman Tim Callahan. And while his group does not endorse candidates, Callahan did say teachers are frustrated with the status quo.

“Teachers would like to see a sea change in attitudes, regardless of whether that means a change in names,” Callahan said. “Educators are really tired of the last 10 years of budget cuts and almost a dismissal of public education in favor of charter schools and scholarships for private schools. Legislators are beginning to view public education in the same way they view public housing and public assistance – as something they have to put some money toward but not much.”

And not surprisingly, Callahan said teachers can sway elections.

“I agree with Candidate Carter on the power of educators,” he said. “Educators do have the power to influence elections. Just ask Roy Barnes. Something like 85 percent of incumbent governors win re-election.”