They're calling it political suicide.
Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge is giving up the state's top education post to take on incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in the Republican primary. And Barge, a career educator, is going to push the issue of education -- particularly school spending -- at every turn. He's making the case that current state leaders are intentionally trying to sabotage public education by whacking away at its $8 billion annual budget.
Deal's campaign office didn't directly address Barge's criticism, but did defend the governor's record on education.
Since 2002, state budget cuts have forced districts to fire thousands of teachers, fill classes to bulging and cut school days. More than a decade of austerity cuts collectively have cost Georgia public schools $7.6 billion.
"They just can't afford to keep the doors open," Barge said on a recent school visit in Chickamauga.
As part of his current gig, Barge tours schools across Georgia. In the coming months he plans on visiting all 181 school systems in the state.
He'll likely find some political support among teachers and district leaders. But he's an absolute long shot. Barge has raised about $130,000, while Deal has raised $7.6 million and has $4 million in his war chest.
Still, some say the tide is turning against Deal.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington is challenging the governor on the right in the Republican primary. And if Deal survives the primary, he'll face Jason Carter, a Democratic state senator and the eldest grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
Educators and parents are fed up with a decade of school budget cuts.
Teachers recently organized to protest a massive change in health insurance that has the potential of costing them thousands more per year.
And the recent snowstorm that wreaked havoc on the South has put Deal on the hot seat on national TV.
Barge's stop last week was his second to Chickamauga's Gordon Lee High School. His first visit there was some 25 years ago, when Barge, a Berry College graduate, was hawking high school yearbooks.
That was before he became a full-time teacher. Before his time as a principal. Before he reached the top ranks of county and state education leadership.
But even as the state's education chief, Barge realized the limits of his office. He said he saw a run for governor as the only way to influence education funding. The independently elected state superintendent has no control over the state's education budget.
The nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute surveyed all 181 school systems about how budget cuts have played out in the classroom. The 140 districts that responded represent more than 90 percent of the state's student enrollment.
The institute found that more than 95 percent of responding districts have increased class sizes since 2009. This school year, 80 percent of districts furloughed teachers -- a majority of them required teachers to take a week or more off, unpaid. And 70 percent have cut the number of school days, some going as low as 160 days -- 20 days fewer than the standard of 180.
"It's no longer normal to be in school for 180 days in Georgia," said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
The cuts aren't just hurting rural, poor Georgia. Even in rich, suburban areas like Cobb County some class sizes have topped 35 students to keep costs down.
"I think it is to the point where it is really visible to anyone who walks into a school," Suggs said. "Certainly there's a political context. But I think it's so tangible that it is right in your face. Teachers and parents are saying we simply can't do this anymore."
Barge is suggesting that the cuts aren't just about getting through lean times. They may be an effort to sabotage public education.
"It appears that there is a hidden agenda here to starve public school systems financially," Barge said in Chickamauga.
If the plan is to usher in an era of privatized education, one way to do so, Barge said, is by slashing funds, cutting teachers and increasing class sizes so schools are unable to make gains on student achievement.
"Then you can shout that our public school systems are failing and they must be privatized, but you will be doing this state and our society a tremendous disservice," he wrote in an open letter to the governor and lawmakers.
Barge knows hes a long shot. No in-party challenger has ever beaten an incumbent governor in the Peach State.
His own campaign estimates Barge will only raised $200,000 to $300,000 all told, compared to $8 million or $10 million that Deal could raise.
"We've known all along that this is David vs. Goliath," said campaign manager Joel Thornton. "What we won't be able to compete with him is on TV airtime. We're not going to be able to saturate the Atlanta metro area with TV ads."
Thornton said some business owners and legislators who support Barge are afraid to donate because they fear retribution from what he called a "vindictive" Deal. A legislator who supports Barge "was afraid the governor would punish his district," Thornton said.
Deal campaign spokeswoman Jen Talaber said the governor has a track record of cooperation. She pointed to this week's endorsement from a bipartisan group of more than 120 Georgia mayors.
"Gov. Deal has a record of solving problems and finding solutions with any serious elected official or leader, regardless of political affiliation or ties," she said.
In his State of the State address, Deal said spending cuts were meant to make government more efficient.
"My approach as governor has been to do in the hard times, what is almost impossible for government to do in the good times; that is, make state government programs leaner and more efficient and concentrate scarce resources on those areas that will produce the best and most long lasting results. To that end, we have eliminated certain programs and consolidated others in order to achieve greater efficiency in the use of taxpayer dollars."
Educators who have coped with staggering budget cuts say their frustration is reaching a boiling point. And that the frustration has trickled over into parents and the general public.
"I think the governor is probably starting to realize there's an underlying tone among many teachers now," said Dade County Superintendent Shawn Tobin. "And I think more and more teachers are becoming registered voters. And I think the governor is smart enough to realize that teachers are a powerful voting bloc. And when teachers get angry, they're going to show up at the ballot box."
That doesn't necessarily mean they'll vote for Barge. Austerity cuts can't all be blamed on Deal, Tobin said. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue started them while facing a tough economy, and the Legislature continually approves them.
But there's no question that Barge's run is shining a light on the state of education.
"Barge is bringing attention to what schools have been going through," Tobin said. "Is he a viable candidate? I can't say one way or another, but he's been educating people on what's been going on in schools for years."
As if teachers weren't already fed up, the state this year narrowed health insurance options for teachers and other state workers. Now there's only one option and it significantly increased out-of-pocket expenses for drugs, doctor visits and procedures.
Teresa Sefcik, a Whitfield County Schools social worker, said furloughs already have taken thousands from teachers' pocketbooks. The health insurance change seems to be the last straw for many, she said.
Barge's run is encouraging because of the primary discussion it's sparking, Sefcik said. But she's also excited by Carter. His wife is a public school teacher and his kids are enrolled in Georgia public schools.
"There's a potential for great debate, with educational issues being front and center from both sides," she said. "I'm hopeful that debate will be had. And it's about time, because nobody's been talking about it for the last four years."
Deal recently announced that the next state budget will increase education spending by half a billion dollars -- the largest single increase in schools spending in five years. But it's barely a drop in the bucket compared to what schools have lost. And Sefcik said the announcement's timing is suspicious.
"Education has clearly not been a priority because the governor hasn't talked about it much and he hasn't directed any extra money our way until curiously now when it's an election," Sefcik said. "That tactic doesn't go unnoticed."
Staff writer Tim Omarzu contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.