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Teachers may have light ballot impact

Numbers suggest majority of educators unregistered to vote

POSTED: May 10, 2014 11:21 p.m.

Many view teachers, as a group, as a powerful voting bloc with the ability to sway election results.

“They have in the past,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Just ask former Gov. Roy Barnes.”

Barnes, governor from 1999-2003, lost in an upset to Republican Sonny Perdue in 2002. While there were multiple issues surrounding Barnes’ loss, including a feud over the redesign of the state flag, many attributed his defeat to a galvanized bloc of teachers upset over his education reforms.

“Educators were one of several constituent groups who soured on the former governor,” Callahan said. “(It was) remarkable when you consider that nationally and historically something on the order of 80 percent of incumbent governors are re-elected.”

But while it’s accepted that there are large numbers of teachers — around 110,000 in Georgia — the idea they can change an election outcome may be a myth.

Some numbers estimate teacher voting registration rates as low as 30-50 percent, per information distributed to school systems via the Regional Educational Service Agencies.

“To be honest, if the data is correct and teachers have never voted in very large numbers and have not been represented, then I don’t know,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “I think this may be the first time we see what impact they can have.”

A February article in Education Week states the 2014 election may prove pivotal in education, with 36 governors and thousands of legislators on the ballot. In Georgia, voters also will select a new state school superintendent from a large field of candidates from both parties.

And there are many issues this year to get educators to the polls — there are concerns for agenda items ranging from standardized testing to new evaluation standards.

“Overall, I think that teachers have become much more aware that education policy that impacts them in the classroom and in the school often comes from the governor and the state legislature,” Dyer said. “They’ve become more savvy about identifying the source of policy. The funding, really, has brought that to light.”

While the downturn in the economy beginning in 2008 has dictated funding levels, Dyer said teachers have noted politicians’ decisions on how to divide the available dollars.

Health insurance and Common Core are two other issues that may bring teachers to the polls in droves this year, as well.

“While we’ve not seen a large bloc of concern about Common Core in Hall County and Gainesville, there may be in other parts of the state,” Dyer said.

Common Core is a set of standards for mathematics and English/language arts. It was adopted by Georgia in 2010; this is the second school year in which it’s been implemented.

Callahan said he doesn’t think there’s a real anti-Common Core sentiment among teachers, but rather the feeling that there are too many things being asked of them at one time.

“I think that’s true of our state as a whole, and individual teachers as well,” he said.

And anger at changes to the State Health Benefit Plan at the beginning of the year brought together a large swath of teachers, mostly via the Facebook group Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes, or TRAGIC.

With more than 15,000 members, pressure from the group is credited for revisions to the health plan, including the option of a co-pay and the addition of a teacher representative on the board deciding on insurance changes.

“It depends on how the opposition plays it,” Callahan said on whether the pushback against the insurance changes could affect November elections. “(It wouldn’t) if the opposition doesn’t offer any alternatives to the way it’s done now.”

Regardless of what individuals decide on issues, education agencies like RESA and PAGE are encouraging all teachers to register and vote. RESA has produced a “Register to Vote” video to share with systems. Dyer said there is a new push to ensure 100 percent of teachers are registered to vote.

It’s best summed up in an email to school superintendents from RESA representatives: “Remember, for the most part, students can’t vote ... they need our help to improve public education.”


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