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Shipp: School debate is déjà vu, with no help in sight

POSTED: June 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.

"Why would we ever go back?"

That is the question Gov. Sonny Perdue posed in a newspaper article Sunday and hurled at former Gov. Roy Barnes. Across the page, Barnes had written an equal-space essay criticizing Perdue's slipping-and-sliding education system.

When I looked at the newspaper, I thought I was already back -- back in 2002. It looked like the Barnes-Perdue election campaign going full speed ahead, just like six years ago.

As in olden days, Sonny gave the Democrats hell about their inability to improve the schools. Never mind that it has been years since Democrats had any say-so over Georgia public education. Sonny was careful not to wake up Georgians. He didn't want us to recall that the donkeys had been booted from their power positions long ago, and that some other party was now at the helm.

Roy used his allotted space to reiterate his ideas for education and contend that our schools have been shortchanged badly since he left office. Roy's A-plus plan for education was fed to the shredder and forgotten just as the door slammed on the Democrats some years ago.

The op-ed pieces dealt solely with public schools, but they made us remember lots of other issues. There was old Sonny grinning like a Cheshire cat as he congratulated the flaggers and promised to hold a referendum on restoring the Confederate battle emblem to its former glory on the state flag. The flaggers were ecstatic.

At last someone paid attention. Back then, Sonny sounded more credible and cordial than a Nigerian prince trying to give away $40 million on the Internet. Flaggers never got their vote.

But back to the little red schoolhouse: Recall how Sonny pledged more local control over the schools and vowed to get rid of teacher accountability?

He kept part of his word. He relieved the teachers of accountability. Try firing a teacher today for anything short of a felony. He also stripped $1.5 billion from local school budgets. So why would we ever want to go back? Remember? Republican State Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko had decided to run for governor and used bundles of stolen taxpayers' cash to finance her campaign. We didn't know that back in 2002. She hadn't been sent to prison yet. When she finally went to the big house, the voters proved they needed more remedial work. We picked another Republican state schools superintendent.

We also didn't know back then that Barnes had quietly summoned House Republicans to his side to fashion education reform. Gov. Barnes even started acting like a Republican. His buddy, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, furnished Roy with a prototype for education reform.

Just a few months earlier, Georgia Senate Republican leader Eric Johnson of Savannah saluted Barnes for his cooperative spirit on several issues, which Johnson said was in sharp contrast to that of then yellow-dog Democrat and former Gov. Zell Miller.

"He's the un-Zell," Johnson said of Barnes. "When he asks for input, he's sincere."

In his published duel with Sonny last week, the former governor somehow forgot to mention that he and the un-Perdue Republicans had snuggled up to pass school reform.

That is understandable. With the Bush and Cheney collapse and Sonny & Co.'s train wreck, singing harmony with any GOP cohort is probably not a good thing to do these days.

Barnes' ringing defense of his education policies last week was refreshing and surprising. He's sounding more and more like a fellow who'd like to go back and pick up where he left off. Some in the business community are quietly pushing the trial lawyer to do just that.

Given the chaos created by his successor, Barnes has to be asking himself, "Why would I ever go back?"

However, Purdue may have had the last word. Two days after the Perdue-Barnes tilt appeared in print, Perdue made most folks forget the myriad problems he had failed to address.

He stopped the scheduled increase on the state gasoline tax. It would save motorists about 3 cents a gallon, effective July 1.

In Georgia, holding down taxes beats building up schools any day.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can contact him at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30160; Web site, billshipponline.com. First published June 4, 2008.



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