Real Choice In The Race For School Superintendent

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The Georgia State School Superintendent’s races present the rarity of late in Georgia politics:  Both the Democratic and Republican runoff candidate pairs present actual contrasts in philosophies of how the position should operate and how each candidate would govern.

Republican candidate Mike Buck is the candidate most closely aligned with the policies of the current administration.  As a member of current Superintendent John Barge’s staff he supports the current Common Core standards and understands that any changes to them should come from the school board.  Buck has made most of those currently occupying GOP elected offices comfortable with the idea of his ascension.

By contrast, Richard Woods represents essentially the forth place finisher from the School Superintendent’s race of 2010 – a race where only two people were on the ballot.  Those within the GOP establishment that wanted a challenge to then Super Kathy Cox had prepared to support Roger Hines who exited the race a week before qualifying.  Kathy Cox resigned her position just after qualifying and removed her name from the ballot leaving only Barge and Woods for voters to choose from.

Woods represents the wing of the GOP that is against everything, and wants the current Common Core standards – originally adopted under Kathy Cox and then Governor Sonny Perdue as Georgia Performance standards – repealed.  While this is a popular position with many, the problem as with most policies are in the details, or in Woods’ case, his lack of them.  As is custom with those from the “against everything, always” section of the GOP, Woods can’t or won’t specify what would replace these standards, other than the platitude of “something better”.  He argues that Georgia should not be moving ahead with new standardized tests approved by the State School Board, again saying that new and “better” tests must be developed.  It almost seems he wants to pretend Georgia’s students can enter a holding pattern for a few years until we figure this out to his supporters’ satisfaction.

Buck understands that we have students in classrooms every day, and that the uncertainty, misunderstanding and paranoia  surrounding Common Core and standardized testing does not mean we can stop everything and wait two to three years before we find “something better”.  Educators have worked hard over the last decade to transition to Georgia’s more rigorous curriculum and Buck vows to continue to forge ahead while working through existing rough patches.  Woods would have us pretend that a state that has spent decades in the education cellar can afford to suspend activities at the state level while those who are against everything decide on something they can support.

Quite notably, it is disappointing that neither Republican candidate voted for the recent Charter Schools amendment.  For a candidate that supports charter schools, voters must look to the Democratic primary runoff.

The Democrats have equally compelling contrasting views from candidates Valarie Wilson and Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan.  Wilson has rallied the Democratic establishment (yes, Georgia still has one of those) and best represents the Democratic version of the status quo party line:  Money is what is needed to fix education, and please leave everything else alone.  Morgan, on the other hand, is an outspoken advocate of public charter schools and the need for those trapped in failing schools to have choice.  This has drawn the ire from that same Democratic establishment.  Morgan can take solace in the fact that the areas where the recent amendment authorizing charter schools received the strongest support in areas with high concentrations of Democratic voters.

Turnout will be an interesting item to watch for the Democratic side, as it’s their only statewide race yet to be decided.  Local races such as DeKalb’s runoff for Sheriff will drive turnout in sporadic pockets across the state, making the model of who will vote – and what their desire for school choice is – a key in determining the Democratic nominee.

Perhaps one of the great ironies of the Democratic race is that the establishment Democrats are going after Representative Morgan for being too Republican, while those that lead their ticket are all but claiming center right credentials.  Gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter voted for the so called “guns everywhere” bill and is OK with Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates.  U.S. Senate Nominee can’t seem to run enough ads showing her standing next to George H. W. Bush.

So at the end of the day, Democrats are openly willing to let their standard bearers pander to Republicans and centrists.  But the potential nominee for a statewide office – arguably the one most likely to win – is being opposed by core Democratic operatives because she might actually try to govern along the principles she presents herself to have.

Watch Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan, closely.  Despite some vocal opposition she is receiving during her primary runoff, she is the current Democrat who is most likely able to win statewide.  That is if….IF Democrats have the courage to nominate her.


  1. ryanhawk says:

    Yep to all of the above. Morgan, and candidates that share her views on education, are the future of the Democratic Party.

    Republicans have lead on school reform issues for a long time, and I blame inept tea party leadership for fumbling on the issue of late. In essense Georgia tea party leadership has adopted the views of the AFT on sensible reforms and are effectively defending the status quo while preventing Republicans in Georgia from doing what reform Republicans in Utah, Indiana, Arizona, etc… have been doing for a decade.

  2. “Quite notably, it is disappointing that neither Republican candidate voted for the recent Charter Schools amendment. For a candidate that supports charter schools, voters must look to the Democratic primary runoff.”

    Disappointing indeed.

          • ryanhawk says:

            Unfortunately for you most of the people who say they “support Charter Schools but…” do not actually support Charter Schools. I take you at your word, but the venn diagram is not pretty. Valerie Wilson is a prime example of someone who plays this word game.

        • Three Jack says:

          Dr. Monica,

          pucillo.oscar puts it pretty well on the other education thread rolling today.

          My basic reason for opposing Charter in GA is the need to move toward actual private schools. Charter is a baby step in that direction, but not worth the ongoing battles like in Cherokee County. They didn’t need a charter school if we accept the stats showing most if not all government schools are performing above average. Yet there was a huge fight to get it and now money is being diverted to it even though it is not in an under performing area. The charter school amendment was designed with Cherokee in mind because the local school board (elected locally) rejected the concept 3 times based largely on fiscal concerns. If the locally elected board does not want it, then the state should not step in as happened in Cherokee with support from the previous legislative delegation (most no longer serving, some because of their support of charter).

          GOPers need to take a step back, re-strategize with an agenda seeking at the very least a voucher program. Charter is a government school with lipstick.

          • Dr. Monica Henson says:

            Thanks, Three Jack. I like digging deeper into the perspectives. It sounds like you, like I, favor the concept of the funding following the child, a free market if you will, where families can “spend” the education dollars on what they believe to be the best option for their children, whether public or private. I smiled at your image of “a government school with lipstick.” 🙂

            The main benefit I see of charter schooling is that it removes governance from the local board of education in the case of independent startup charters. That’s a good thing for families trapped in failing district schools. In other cases, it enables affluent, well-resourced parents to secure an option for their children at public expense that they haven’t been successful in securing from the local BOE. I’m not a big fan of that incarnation of the charter school concept.

            Do you think that it is realistic, though, that the Georgia GOP (and Democrats who vote red on charter school ballot questions/races) can mobilize sufficient public support for a voucher system? I don’t think that it’s a feasible political sell.

            • Three Jack says:

              Thanks for the reply Dr. Monica. I agree that we agree on the concept of funding following the child. You summed up my intent quite well.

              And your statement about charters is spot on from my perspective. They were designed to offer families a choice in under performing areas, not an affluent place like Cherokee County where government schools score well. Charter gets a bad rap when used as a political tool which is exactly what happened in Cherokee.

              It will be a challenge, but all major reforms should be tough to accomplish. I would work from the basic premise that a child should not be restricted by street address to attend a certain school. Republicans will likely continue as a vast majority after this election so it is really on them to finally do something about education choice in GA. But in the end, it will be up to responsible, caring parents to force the agenda or nothing will happen.

              • John Konop says:

                …….They were designed to offer families a choice in under performing areas, not an affluent place like Cherokee County where government schools score well. .

                I agree…I would add that if a district does not have a good vocational, language, special ed…..I could see it being a solutions as well…The scary part on the financial side is private companies using bonding to fund the schools like in Cherokee…Bart would agree this is the Bobo deal all over again ( 30mm loss to the county) ….which I have been very outspoken about….We could not have tax payers taking the majority of the risk….and private companies getting all the upside….We have seen how this plays out over time…..which is why places like Michigan have very strict rules…unlike Georgia….

    • teacher44 says:

      Many Republican educators voted against the Charter Schools amendment for two main reasons: 1. The vote was for setting up a new commission – it wasn’t about being for or against charter schools.
      2. Republicans believe in limiting government – having yet another commission set up is an expansion of government (the State Board could have taken on this role rather than setting up another board).

    • Dr. Monica Henson says:

      NC has a heavily Republican state legislature that is also heavily far right/Tea Party, hence their opposition to Common Core.

  3. Mrs. Adam Kornstein says:

    While I think a good case has been made about the policy differences, I’m not sure that voters will choose solely based on that criteria. It’s important sure, but many folks I talk to are more concerned that we elect someone who can manage the agency effectively.

    Shouldn’t we be looking at the candidates experience and ability to manage a agency with such a huge chunk of our tax dollars? In the case of Ms. Morgan, while she’s bright and savvy-she’s never run a organization as large and complex as the School Superintendent’s, the 2013 budget was $8,904,053,030 -thats a LOT OF MONEY.

    Even if I agreed with all her “change agent” and “School Choice” advocacy, I simply can’t get behind someone with so little fiscal and senior level leadership experience. The Georgia General Assembly is going to decide much of the policy and the individual school boards the granular details.

    One look at the hash that is SoS office is, with far less fiscal responsibility, tells me we need someone who can come into the State BoE and manage it effectively. I like Alisha, and I’ve defended her in many circles, but in this role, she’s punching well above her weight class.

    I wish she was running for Congress in the 11th District instead.

  4. One key piece of evidence that lends itself to Valerie Wilson’s campaign/argument is that she happens to have led one of the best funded/best performing school systems in the state. It would be ironic if the former leader of the Decatur School board didn’t think more money would help.

    • ryanhawk says:

      Led? How about served as a member of the school board. Relevant experience to be sure, but hardly decisive. If time spent inside the edu machine is what we should judge by it would be Buck>Woods>Wilson>Morgan.

      • Definitely a difference between serving on the board and being an administrator but my point is in the one place where she’s had a hand in trying it, “throwing more money” has worked. It would be dumb if she was now running as some sort of cut the budget / try something new.

        In fact, I would argue that from a global perspective charter schools haven’t been proven to work (not that there aren’t some good ones but just that in most places on average they do about as well/poorly as the public schools they replaced) but there does in fact seem to be some correlation between spending money and results, both on a state level (states that spend more typically have better schools) and within a state (Decatur has better schools and spends a lot).

        • Dr. Monica Henson says:

          Chris, charter schools in failing urban districts in particular have been shown to perform dramatically better in many cases than their neighborhood counterparts. Would you share the evidence you have reviewed that supports the position that “in most places on average they do about as well/poorly as the public schools they replaced”?

          I used to work in Massachusetts and Connecticut, both states that spend considerably higher amounts on public schools than Georgia. However, they have generally better educated populations of parents and smaller school populations overall. This is also the case with Decatur City Schools compared to Georgia as a whole. While I certainly won’t refuse if someone helicopters over Edgewood Avenue downtown and drops a bag of cash on my headquarters, I’m not convinced that spending more money = better schools.

      • Dr. Monica Henson says:

        ryanhawk beat me to it. Been on the highway much of the day today. HUGE difference between chairing a BOE and serving as a district superintendent.

  5. Dr. Monica Henson says:

    Chris, I’m curious if you attribute causation to funding in Decatur City Schools’ performance?

    • I don’t think there is a direct 1:1 relationship but they do seem to get a good bang for their buck. They also seem to be kind of ideally sized in that their administration hasn’t been able to balloon to say the size of DeKalb County’s. One of the reasons I’m intrigued by the Charter Cluster concept in DeKalb.

  6. Mensa Dropout says:

    I believe that Buck is the person for the job for a few reasons:
    1. He understands that there are some problems, but he believes (as do I) that throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the answer. We can keep the standards, which are solid, and change the scope and sequence of those standards to benefit out kids.

    2. If Woods gets into office, I believe the Governor will simply take education completely away from the Super. There is a State Board to which the Super answers, and that board is appointed by the Governor.

    3. Buck understands that, and has already established a relationship with the Board. Woods going in like a bull in the china shop is problematic.

    4. You can make changes in Georgia, and those changes need to be made, but education is about…ready? Children. Education is not about politics, nor is it about the adults. It is about educating the children who will be in charge one day. Playing political football with little people is distasteful at best, and loathsome at worst.

  7. Harry says:

    I’m for Woods. He has the experience and yet will rattle some cages. He also communicates better than the other guy.

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