GOP favors local control -- except when it doesn't 

Capitol contradictions

Limited government. Personal responsibility. Family values. Local control.

If these bullet-point ideas sound familiar, they should. They've been the philosophical cornerstone of the Republican Party since before Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan helped codify the conservative mantra.

So what should be made this year of Gov. Sonny Perdue's "65 percent solution," which would force local school systems to spend nearly two-thirds of their budgets "in the classroom"?

Or a measure by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, that overrides a new school redistricting plan by the Cobb School Board?

Or a statewide bill by Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, that would replace the Fulton County Board of Tax Assessors?

Each of these pieces of legislation and a few others this session would wrest decision-making power away from local elected officials -- school boards, county commissions, city councils, etc. -- and place it in the hands of state lawmakers. All of that seems to be at odds with the hallowed GOP principle that government works best when it's closest to the people.

Whether local school systems would improve education by devoting 65 percent of their budgets to classroom costs (as opposed to bus service and building maintenance) is a matter of debate. But to mandate such a one-size-fits-all approach across the state is something of a departure from conservative principles, notes Dick Williams, a newspaper publisher who hosts TV's "The Georgia Gang."

"It clearly contravenes the idea of local control," Williams says.

"We've seen a tipping of the scales away from local control for several years," says Jocelyn Whitfield, lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators. The trend began, she says, with Gov. Roy Barnes' A+ Education Reform Act, which handed down state guidelines for grade advancement.

But it has continued unabated with Perdue and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which attempts frequent tweaks to school curricula -- even going so far as to specify what texts must be used in the classroom, as in the case of Sen. Tommie Williams', R-Lyons, biblical studies bill. (Hint: It's the Bible.)

Another recent effort to provide top-down guidance came in a contentious House bill to force schools to secure parental permission before students could join extra-curricular clubs. The bill was amended to instead place the responsibility on parents to deny permission, but both versions are still alive in the Capitol.

"Some of these bills put Republicans in the uncomfortable position of voting in apparent conflict with what have been traditional conservative views on local control," says Chuck Clay, a former state Republican Party head who toiled for many years as a minority legislator.

Or perhaps not so uncomfortable.

Ehrhart says he's heard the argument that his Cobb school bill, which has been signed into law by Perdue, flies in the face of local control, but he's OK with that charge.

"Local control does not mean local monopoly," he says. "The state Legislature has an overall policy role on issues that affect people, and the balance has to be achieved on a case-by-case basis."

In this case, Ehrhart also has been accused of a conflict of interest. His children would reportedly have been sent to a school they didn't want to attend under the county's redistricting plan.

But he's also passed bills that trumped local control in cases where he had no direct interest, such as throwing out the city of Atlanta's minority contracting guidelines a couple of years back.

"You use your best judgement," Ehrhart says, "to determine what's right and wrong and what's best for people."



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