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By Eric Stirgus October 20, 2010

Cagle ad sparks debate on education cuts

The television ad begins with the smiling faces of several children.

The next image is of Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle standing in a classroom.

"Children are our priority," Cagle says. "That's why we refused to balance the budget on the backs of our children."

"Cut!" some said. Didn't Georgia cut education funding this fiscal year? Aren't many school districts furloughing teachers? Didn't former Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox say the cuts are so deep that the state is now paying for only 147 of the 180 mandated days in the school year?

Cagle's camp directed us to his campaign website, which has a point-by-point defense of virtually each sentence in the ad. Its explanation for saying state leaders refused to "balance the budget on the backs of our children" includes a bill passed earlier this year that gives school districts greater spending flexibility. As lieutenant governor, Cagle presides over the Georgia Senate and is one of the most powerful politicians under the Gold Dome.

Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint was among those who didn't buy Cagle's argument. Cagle's main opponent in the Nov. 2 primary, Democrat Carol Porter, posted the professor's beef on her campaign website.

"To say you preserved education funding is pretty hollow," Swint told AJC PolitiFact Georgia.

Over two years, state spending has dropped from $21 billion to $18 billion. State leaders blame the Great Recession.

"We don't have a choice," Cox said in May during a discussion on lifting the limits on classroom sizes. "We didn't give them enough money."

Cagle's campaign argues the cuts could have been worse, which is partly why it put together the ad. The lieutenant governor notes the Legislature's effort to restore funding for the school nurse program. In the fiscal year 2010 budget, which was adopted in 2009, Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed removing all $30 million the state provides for the program. The Legislature kept $29.1 million in the budget for the nurse program. In the fiscal year 2011 budget adopted earlier this year, Perdue proposed cutting the school nurse budget again, to about $27.5 million. The Senate proposed cutting the budget to about $26.8 million but eventually kept it at $27.5 million.

Cagle pointed to the state's Regional Educational Service Agency as another example of the Legislature's resistance to balancing the budget on the backs of children. The RESA allows local school systems and colleges to share resources for planning, staff development, curriculum and other categories. Perdue proposed cutting all $12.1 million from the budget for that program. The Legislature kept $9.3 million.

The lieutenant governor also mentioned House Bill 908, which gives school systems the flexibility to spend more money on some instructional programs, media centers and professional development. School systems can also increase class sizes.

Cagle campaign manager Ryan Cassin said education spending was cut by a smaller percentage than other departments.

Some state education experts say what Cagle mentioned on his website pales in comparison with the overall state cuts.

"Flexibility is no substitute when you lose $1 billion," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Garrett said the cuts have resulted in some districts delaying buying new textbooks. Another consequence is larger class sizes, which many experts believe hurts students because the pupils get less attention from their teacher. Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the nonpartisan, 80,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said some schools are operating four days a week, there's less time for teachers to prepare lesson plans and they have fewer supplies.

"I've really got to scratch my head when they say they shielded education and [are] not balancing the budget on the backs of our children," he said.

Cagle correctly points out that the Legislature did restore education funding in some areas and the school systems have more spending flexibility. However, the state cuts have been, as Garrett told us, some of the largest in recent memory. The cuts have had an impact on children and instruction.

Cagle's statement has some element of truth, but it ignores critical facts such as overall state budget cuts and their impact on the classroom.

That rates as Barely True in our book.

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Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Casey Cagle for Georgia television ad, Oct. 11, 2010

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I just feel demoralized; General Assembly ends supplements," May 9, 2010

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Re-enact overreact," May 31, 2010

Georgia FY 2010 budget conference committee substitute to House Bill 119

Georgia FY 2011 budget tracking sheet

Telephone interview with Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint, Oct. 14, 2010

Telephone interview with Cagle campaign manager Ryan Cassin, Oct. 19, 2010

Telephone interview with Georgia School Superintendents Association executive director Herb Garrett, Oct. 18-19, 2010

Telephone interview with Professional Association of Georgia Educators spokesman Tim Callahan, Oct. 18-19, 2010

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