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Education still a hot topic in state politics

With education taking up more than half of Georgia's budget, it's no surprise that the state's public schools and universities become fodder for gubernatorial campaigns every four years.

But Democrats believe they will have an especially compelling case to make in 2006 against Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's record on that front.

Indeed, judging by what Democratic leaders have been saying in recent weeks, education will be their No. 1 choice of weapons to skewer the incumbent on the campaign trail.

First and foremost are cuts of nearly $1 billion to public schools and $700 million to the state's university system Perdue has imposed during three years in office.

That budget austerity spurred a decision to delay planned reductions in class sizes required by the education reform bill pushed through the Legislature by former Gov. Roy Barnes - a Democrat - and an unsuccessful attempt by Perdue to link eligibility for HOPE Scholarships to SAT scores.

Democrats also are turning the tables on the criticism then-candidate Perdue leveled at Barnes in 2002 for failing to lift Georgia's SAT marks out of the nation's cellar during his watch. After a one-year stint off the bottom of the list, Georgia slipped back into a last-place tie with South Carolina this year.

But what really brought the chorus of barbs to a head during the last couple of weeks was the governor's decision as Hurricane Rita was approaching the Gulf Coast to ask school systems across the state to close for two days to save on diesel fuel. Democrats have seized upon those "extra snow days" as a symbol of Perdue's lack of commitment to education.

"In Governor Perdue's world, the only nonessential travel seems to be children going to school," said state Democratic spokesman Emil Runge. "It's frightening just how low a priority education is for Governor Perdue."

Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Perdue, dismisses the flap Democrats are making over the school closings as political hype.

McLagan said the shortages of diesel the state experienced after the hurricane hit - even with the school buses parked - showed that the governor made the right decision.

As for Perdue's record on education, his spokesman pointed to average SAT scores that have improved during the governor's term in office, even while Georgia's standing with other states was treading water, and to pro-teacher legislation he backed that requires teenagers to behave in school or lose their driver's license.

"We're entering the political silly season, and they're going to make all kinds of accusations," McLagan said. "Education has been this governor's top priority."

McLagan also accused Democrats of taking cheap shots at Perdue's handling of the education budget from the comfortable position of being out of power, where they have no accountability for setting spending priorities.

The economy was in a tailspin when Perdue took office, forcing him to make difficult choices on how to distribute shrinking tax revenues.

"It's easy in the minority to yell and scream about what got cut because they don't have to propose a budget," McLagan said.

Runge said the choices the governor made turned out to be the wrong ones. His education cuts have been aimed too much at instruction and not enough at school administrators and central offices, said Runge.

"You have tough budget times, you're going to cut administrative staff," he said. "He's cutting classroom spending."

It all has a familiar ring to Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, whether it's Perdue calling Georgia's SAT scores under Barnes "unacceptable" or Democrats today decrying Perdue's failure to shrink class sizes.

Black said both the importance of education to voters and Georgia's perennially poor standing compared with other states makes the state of the schools standard fare every time campaign season rolls around.

"It's the same-old, same-old," he said. "Nobody's turned SAT scores around. ... Because education never gets fixed, it's always an issue for the party that's out of power."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com .