Oct 9, 4:54 PM EDT

Ga. governor candidates continue education debate



MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) -- Georgia educators are being pulled left and right in advance of next month's elections.

Education has become one of the top issues in the race for Georgia governor, with Republican Nathan Deal and Democrat Jason Carter both trying to position themselves as state leaders who will focus on teachers and their students. The latest tug-of-war came Thursday when a recently formed group of educators backed Deal, arguing he has a record of supporting education.

Thursday's event also reignited debate about allowing state employee retirement funds, including those for teachers, to invest in start-up companies. Deal accused Carter, a state senator from Atlanta, of proposing the idea without considering educators.

Carter's campaign said he would never allow the change without support from retirees who depend on the pension funds.

"(Carter) was abundantly clear ... that he would never do anything to weaken the pension fund," campaign spokesman Bryan Thomas said. "He knows teachers have every right to be skeptical of politicians the way they've been treated the last several years by Gov. Deal."

Carter told state retirees at a conference Tuesday that his comments were misunderstood.

Deal said Carter should have known that educators would oppose the idea because of past resistance during his time in the Legislature.

Both campaigns have acknowledged that teachers are a key voting group, especially with polls showing Deal and Carter within points of each other.

Tana Page, the executive director of Educators First, said the group has about 5,000 members since forming in 2011 as an alternative for educators unhappy with the political tendencies of the Georgia Association of Educators. The GAE is one of the state's largest teacher organizations and backed Carter in August.

"(Deal) has listened to us on health care issues, on accountability stakeholders ... and he has also listened with an open ear for talks on the economy and increasing education spending," Page said. She said the group has backed several candidates in local school board elections and one Democratic state Senate candidate. It has reported using contributions to its political action committee to attend Republican party events.

The group has just a fraction of the membership in other education organizations - nearly 4,000 compared to the 42,000 reported by GAE. Educators First reported $9,769 in contributions during the election cycle, compared to the $436,000 reported by the GAE at the end of June.

Another group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, serves about 89,000 members. It does not endorse political candidates.

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