John Barge eyes the governor's mansion

Georgia school superintendent tells state he would double down on education if he can upset Deal

Last summer, Georgia School Superintendent John Barge surprised political observers with his decision to challenge fellow Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. The Rome native felt the only way he could truly improve Georgia's woeful education system, which he's led since 2010, was to run for governor. On May 20, he and Dalton Mayor David Pennington battle Deal in the Republican primary. Barge recently discussed why he wants to run against an incumbent GOP governor and what he would do differently.

Why should Atlantans vote for you?

People are tired of the polarization in this state: it's either Republican or Democrat, black or white, rich or poor, you name it. That's not good for the future. We keep electing the same people and expect different results for our state. That's just crazy. Voters have an option this time. They have an opportunity to elect a person who will lead on principles, morals, and doing the right thing. If you look at my track record, it's all about making life better for those that I serve. That's the heart of who I am.

Why aren't you running again as superintendent? You could enact change in public education.

The writing on the wall, so to speak, for public education, is not good if Deal's re-elected. For the sake of public education, I felt like I needed to run. I laid out the challenges to the governor for our public education system and the ramifications of the lack of funding over several years. I asked him point blank, "Does anyone over here have a plan on what you'll do with a bankrupt school district?" He didn't hesitate in his response. He said, "Charter schools will just take them over." People accuse me of committing political suicide and being a one-trick pony. That's not true. There are other issues we need to deal with: economic development, poverty, the unemployment rate, and, absolutely, ethics and corruption. But address it through education.

What you would do as governor outside of education? How do you differ from Deal in economic development?

If Deal's going to take credit for Georgia being a top place to do business, he also has to take credit for four consecutive years of the unemployment rate being higher than the national average. Our ranking in per capita income has fallen every year in office. I don't know the answer to every question. But I know how to identify people who do know and can bring them together to solve problems. I would create a commission to look at our entire tax system. See if there's a way to tax better. We've got to look at everything we do to better meet the needs of our people. No sacred cows. It's all on the table.

What do you think of Deal's recent ethics overhaul?

His proposal is OK. But this is a situation where the governor has waited for something to happen before he decides to lead. You can look at things like education funding. ... Why wait until now for public education funding increases? The same goes for the severe weather task force, medical marijuana bill, and ethics reform. The ethics commission needs to be completely reformed. It's ludicrous to think that you can have the fox watching the hen house.

This interview has been edited and condensed.