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Who’s Sorry Now?

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes wants his old job back so badly that he's abandoned the one issue that made him exceptional.

By 7.14.10

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Few politicians have ever won as much acclaim from the school reform movement as Georgia gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes. As governor of the Peach State from 1999 to 2003, the one-time prosecutor and state legislator impressed fellow centrist Democrats, standards-and-accountability activists, and charter school proponents for such measures as abolishing tenure, the employment status that guarantees near-lifetime careers to teachers regardless of performance.

But he also earned the ire of the National Education Association's Georgia affiliate, which had the long knives out for him. By 2002, the teachers union essentially helped oust Barnes -- and ended 130 years of Democratic control of Peach State government.

Eight years later, Barnes is back on the Peach State political scene running for the top office he so ignominiously lost. But this time around, school reformers aren't exactly so pleased. That's because Barnes has all but abandoned the school reformers who gave him a platform -- including the prestigious co-chairmanship of the Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind -- during his years in the political wilderness.

Instead, Barnes has cast aside nearly every school reform he supported and spent most of his time -- and $3 million war chest -- apologizing to the teachers union presidents and rank-and-file members who helped toss him to the curb. "It was never my intent and it's not my intent now not to treasure teachers," Barnes whined in an ad his campaign released this past month.

Considering his lackluster opponents -- including the state's attorney general, Thurbert Baker (who hasn't been nearly as sharp on the campaign trail as he was as during his days on the University of North Carolina's fencing team) -- Barnes is more than guaranteed to win the Democratic gubernatorial nod. But in abandoning school reformers, Barnes loses an important base of support that he is unlikely to replace. Teachers union leaders and rank-and-file supporters have long memories of his first time in office -- and haven't exactly bought into remorse. Nor will it help Barnes overcome an election cycle that favors Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere.

CERTAINLY BARNES ISN'T THE ONLY Democrat seeking the coffers (and rank-and-file support) of the NEA and American Federation of Teachers. Centrist Democrat school reformers may have won over President Barack Obama, and ended unquestioned support for the teachers union agenda. But they remain an influential force within Democratic Party politics, especially as voter disenchantment with Obama on other issues has fueled a string of Republican victories.

So far in the 2009-2010 election cycle, the NEA and AFT have donated $22 million to candidates, party committees, and ballot measures, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Among the struggling Democrats benefiting from the largesse: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (who faces a rematch against his predecessor, Robert Ehrlich), and Alabama gubernatorial candidate Ron Sparks, who trails both Republican aspirants for the Cotton State's high office, according to Rasmussen Reports.

The NEA and AFT displayed their brute force late last month when it convinced House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey to tuck a $10 billion school bailout package aimed at stemming the layoffs of at least 100,000 teachers and other school employees into a supplementary war spending bill -- and fund it by cutting $800 million from such Obama school reform efforts as the $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. All but 15 House Democrats supported the plan over the objections of centrist Democrat school reformers and Obama himself-- who has threatened to veto the entire package. (It faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which has already rejected Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin's efforts to pass a similar plan.)

Barnes knows teachers union hardball all too well. The son of a general store owner in what is now the suburban Atlanta enclave of Mableton who served three decades in the state legislature before succeeding former rival Zell Miller as governor, Barnes became a rising star in Democratic party politics by 2000 after managing a rare feat: Convincing fellow statehouse Democrats to abolish the state's Fair Dismissal Act, which guaranteed tenure to every school teacher after their first three years on the job. That move, along with the passage of a law establishing a standardized testing regime, won Barnes praise from school reformers. The Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democrat group that helped make Bill Clinton, Evan Bayh, and Al Gore household names, went so far as to declare that "we're glad New Democrat Roy Barnes is taking them on and beating them."

But Barnes didn't win any favors with the Georgia Association of Educators or its 40,000 rank-and-file members. His LBJ-esque penchant for steamrolling allies and opponents alike -- or his otherwise admirable-yet-controversial effort to eliminate the unseemly Confederate stars and bars from the Peach State flag -- also didn't keep him in good graces with the rest of the electorate. So when Barnes faced a tough re-election bid in 2002, the NEA affiliate all but formally backed his Republican opponent, former Democrat legislator Sonny Perdue and successfully helped oust Barnes from office. Not only did Barnes lose his job, but his fellow Democrats in the legislature were swept out, giving Republicans control of the Gold Dome for the first time since Reconstruction.

"Teachers were determined to hold Gov. Barnes accountable for making them the scapegoats during the 2000 education reform movement," proclaimed GAE President Merchuria Chase Williams after Barnes' defeat. (Perdue, by the way, signed legislation bringing back tenure as soon as he took office).

The shocking defeat apparently convinced Barnes that school reform wasn't exactly the way to go. Eight years later, the reforms he championed during his first term in office are nowhere to be found on his campaign Web site.

Instead, Barnes has taken to issuing mea culpas to everyone, especially to teachers unions for "not doing it… listening more to those who are the front line"; he's also conducted a conference call with teachers to show that he was listening to their concerns. He has already pledged to create more panels to include more teachers in education policymaking (which seems needless given the vast influence of the NEA affiliate and a rival group, the Professional Association of George Educators). He has also signed on to reducing class sizes, the favored teachers union solution for improving education, despite evidence that it does little for all but the poorest and neediest students.

None of the apologias -- or overall pathetic display -- has gone unnoticed either among school reform activists or longtime observers of Peach State politics. "Roy Barnes has posted his most abject apology yet," declared Atlanta Journal-Constitution political blogger Jim Galloway.

IT'S RARE FOR POLITICIANS TO APOLOGIZE after a defeat; save for Bill Clinton's return to the Arkansas Governor's office in 1982, it is rarely done with any finesse or success. So the fact that Barnes is even leading in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination is a tad amazing. Yet in running away from school reform, Barnes is running away from his single-strongest issue. Given that 33 percent of Georgia fourth-graders read Below Basic proficiency -- and that the Peach State is now tied with once-lowly Florida (a school reform trailblazer) in graduation rates -- the kind of measures Barnes once embraced are needed more than ever.

At the national level, Obama's embrace of school reform -- the only part of his agenda that has proven to be a singular success -- along with the success of teacher quality reform efforts in Colorado, California, and even New York have shown that teachers unions no longer hold the high ground on education policy. Barnes is not only abandoning an issue just as he can actually win on it -- and keep office -- he is also abandoning one of the proudest legacies of Southern governors. After all, it was the efforts of Clinton, George W. Bush, Lamar Alexander, and other Southern governors that helped usher in the modern school reform movement.

Meanwhile Barnes's apologies aren't working with teachers union officials or the rank-and-file. A week after Barnes released one of his video mea culpas, the GAE refused to endorse him or any other Democrat; it may still endorse a Republican candidate in a likely Republican run-off for the gubernatorial nod. Barnes also came in a pathetic fifth place in a straw poll held by the traditional education circle-allied Georgia Education Alliance. Many teachers share the same feelings as Mary Ann Ellis, who complained about receiving so many of Barnes's targeted e-mails. Wrote Ellis in the Baxley News-Banner: "As you speak, humility cakes your face like too much makeup on a strumpet."

The chances of a second term for Barnes, especially in light of the struggles of fellow Democrats in other states, may make all this groveling an exercise in wretched futility.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.