Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal has changed his tune on federal “Race to the Top” money but says he still has some “unanswered questions” about the education grant program.
After initially telling business leaders at a candidate forum Tuesday morning that he would reject the federal money for schools, Deal’s campaign said later in the afternoon that the candidate spoke on bad information.
Georgia is one of 19 finalists in the second round of the $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” school reform grant competition, which aims to encourage innovation among states that will close the achievement gap and turn around the lowest performing schools.
Originally, Deal thought the grant program would force the state to adhere to national education standards and said he didn’t want money with strings attached.
Karen Handel, also at Tuesday’s Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce candidate forum and who will go head to head with Deal for the Republican nomination in the Aug. 10 runoff for governor, told business leaders she would accept the money — which could total $400 million — if Georgia is chosen.
“As long as we’re paying taxes to the federal government I think I have a responsibility to make sure Georgia gets its fair share,” Handel said. “I do think we should not turn our nose up at it.”
Ultimately, Deal’s campaign said he wouldn’t reject the money either.
The 17-year veteran of the U.S. House did say he had “long-term concerns” about Georgia’s financial obligations to the program after the federal funds stop coming to Georgia.
“Even though there is apparently no mandated curriculum, the unanswered question is whether or not by accepting the funds, what are we going to be obligated to do once the funds of the Race to the Top run out. Are we still going to be obligated to come up with state funds to make up the difference? Those are the kind of long-term concerns that I have,” Deal said.
But Deal’s final decision on the subject came hours after the morning forum and after his campaign spokesman, Brian Robinson, followed up on Deal’s comments, likening participation in the program to taking free drugs from an illegal drug dealer.
“The thing with this federal money is it’s like a drug dealer: the first one’s free and then they’ve got you hooked and you play by their rules,” Robinson said.
The comments put the governor’s office on the defensive.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has made the state’s application a top education priority and has pushed through reforms — such as adopting Common Core, a state-led initiative that outlines what students should know by the time they graduate high school, and forming a study committee to create a merit pay system for educators — to make the state more competitive.
“We wrote a plan that is uniquely Georgia, and there is nothing in there that is mandated by the federal government. And there’s nothing in there that requires us to do anything. Those are all things that we want to do and that we are volunteering to do in order to do some real reforms that we could not have otherwise afforded given the way the economy is right now,” said Bert Brantley, Perdue’s communications director. “...I really feel like had we had the chance to walk (the Deal campaign) through this, the reaction may have been different.”
When the Deal camp later reneged, Robinson said Deal had learned the money did not come with a federally mandated curriculum.
While there is no standardized curriculum component of Race to the Top, states are encouraged to adopt Common Core.
“He is not going to return the money,” Robinson said. “That program will already be in place when he takes office.”
Deal corrected his position on the grant after a conversation with Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield, he said.
Schofield said he was “taken aback” by Deal’s initial position but talked to the Republican from Gainesville on Tuesday afternoon.
“But of course we’d take the money. I’m glad they’ve straightened that out because I know he’s a staunch supporter of local education decisions being made at the local level,” Schofield said. “But in these incredibly austere times, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and I think we have a lot of consistency there.”
Handel’s campaign seized on Deal’s misstep.
“Nathan should try to understand policy before he tries to use it to make political hay,” said Handel spokesman Dan McLagan.
Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said both Deal and Handel’s statements on the program have the “potential to influence voters.”
The city superintendent, for one, said she could understand Deal’s original position.
“Race to the Top, when it was initially pursued, had broad goals, but the specifics of how to implement them was not communicated to the teachers, the parents or community people,” she said.
The Gainesville school district is one of 26 systems across the state to support the application, but after talking closely with Delaware school officials who are implementing the first round of the grant, Dyer said she has become “more thoughtful.”
Delaware was one of two states that won the first round of Race to the Top grants in March, with money for it and Tennessee totaling $600 million.
Georgia just missed winning the money in the first round, placing third out of 40 states. Winners of the second round of grants are expected to be announced in late August or early September.
“Conceptually we support the application, and we need the funding, but as we studied it altogether and the teachers looked at it, some concerns have arisen,” she said. “My concern is the ability to sustain the funding for parts of the application, such as data systems, a new testing format and a magnitude of professional learning.”
Most of Delaware’s grant money has gone to implementing changes at the state level, Dyer said.
“In Georgia, they put an example in the application for merit pay compensation, and I’ve looked at it, but I cannot see how we could promise funding for that if all teachers improved their quality. That’s just too many people,” she said. “If we get the grant, we can support it, but I hope schools have a voice. I can understand Nathan Deal’s position.”
Both Handel and Deal’s stances on the grant funding “present voters with a clear cut choice if they are concerned about this money and how it would be spent, and that can go either way,” Tim Callahan, public relations director for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said after Deal’s initial statement.
The educators’ organization has made no secret of its opposition to the grant program.
PAGE doesn’t endorse candidates, but Callahan said he wonders if the “folks in Washington” will pay attention to next week’s runoff before making the final decision whether Georgia will receive funding.
“It’s an interesting angle. My sense of it is if a candidate says he doesn’t want the money and then gets elected downstream, he has to live up to the promise and send it back if Georgia wins,” Callahan said.
Times staff writer Carolyn Crist and The Associated Press contributed to this report.