Atlanta Press Club Debate – Republican State Superintendents

The nine GOP candidates for state school chief came out swinging last night. Any real hits?

The nine Republican candidates for state school superintendent all showed up last night for an hour-long debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club on Georgia Public Broadcast.

My AJC colleague Greg Bluestein was among the three journalists questioning the GOP candidates. I served on the panel that questioned the six Democratic candidates in the live broadcast last night. Both debates can be seen online here. I will write later today on the Democratic debate.

First, some overall observations:

The Republican candidates include more non educators than the Democrats. Among them are Nancy Jester, former DeKalb County school board member, Ashley Bell, a former Hall County commissioner, and Fitz Johnson, a successful business owner and a 21-year retired veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve.

The candidates fell back on broad bromides on “proven leadership” and a “passion for kids.” Few policy changes were offered beyond killing Common Core State Standards and then there were few articulated responses on what Georgia would do if it abandoned the standards.

I was surprised at the lack of detail about major education issues and, in a few instances; the misinformation from candidates, especially given the election is Tuesday. I figured they would know their stuff by now.

Bell gave a confusing response to Common Core questions in which he cited all the strings that come with “accepting federal grants.” He also blamed Common Core for the math challenges in Georgia. I talked with him after the debate about his responses, which seemed to meld Common Core with Georgia’s Race to the Top grant. I was still puzzled over what he was saying.

Considered a front runner, Johnson kept his answers so broad and focused on his career success in creating jobs and expanding his company that he could have been running for labor commissioner rather than state school superintendent.

Many people believe you don’t need an education background to run the state’s largest education agency, but the educators ruled the debate in terms of knowledge and clarity. They were precise and offered details. (In the Democratic debate, all six candidates have a deep grasp of education but they occasionally wandered too deep into the weeds, responding with a depth of detail that probably lost a lot of listeners.)

One of the most telling parts of the debate was Round 2 when candidates could ask one another questions. This is usually seen as a gauge of the front runner. Most of questions went to Mike Buck, chief of staff to current State School Superintendent John Barge.

It was odd Buck kept getting questions because he answered the first one so well. Usually, the goal of the candidate asking the question is to damage the respondent’s credibility, but the questions only gave Buck a chance to shine.

Buck and two other Republican candidates employed a unique strategy in their questions; they endorsed one another at least once in the responses. The tag team of Buck, Roswell teacher Kira Willis and Quitman County Superintendent Allen Fort emphasized they were current educators and any of them would be a good choice for voters.

Jester and Mary Kay Bacallao, a college professor and Fayette County School Board candidate in 2010 and 2012, proclaimed in several answers they would stop Common Core. I wonder about this strategy.

When you look at national polling data and state surveys of teachers in Georgia, there’s strong support for Common Core. In a debate setting, viewers look for breadth. Participants who come across as single-issue candidates may appeal to voters who share that single concern but risk alienating other voters.

The debate began with 30 seconds from each candidate on Common Core State Standards:

Bacallao cited her own study of Common Core, saying, “My study proves Common Core is one to two years behind Georgia’s former performance standards. We need to focus on the testing system. Our testing system is keeping our kids from getting ahead.”

Ashley Bell, a former Hall County Commissioner and former charter school system chairman; “I am against the federal government being involved in local education. As a charter school chair, I asked parents to come out to talk about Common Core.” He said he learned then that Common Core had changed curriculum to the point that “parents can’t help kids with homework.”

Mike Buck, chief of staff to the current superintendent John, Barge, said he supports Common Core, but his position is not the important one as the governor, the Legislature, the Chamber of Commerce and 70 to 75 percent of Georgia teachers support the standards. “We need to stay the course.”

Sharyl Dawes, a businesswoman and a legislative liaison for the Parent Teacher Association said: “I believe in local control and decisions being made by local superintendent and school board.”

Allen Bowles Fort, Superintendent of Quitman County Schools: “I am for kicking what we don’t need in Common Core to the curb and keeping what we do need.”

Nancy Jester, former DeKalb County School Board member and an actuarial consultant: “I reject Common Core. It is a bad idea. It is not a conservative idea. It is not a Republican idea. It is a bureaucrat’s idea.”  She further went on to say, “We need consequences for academic and financial failures. The Department of Education has a policy, we subsidize failure. You can’t have a county of DeKalb without a state that let it happen.”

Fitz Johnson, a defense contractor, retired Army officer, business owner and community activist: “I have been very clear during my entire campaign; I am for rigorous standards for our students. Let’s take what is right and move forward.”

Kira Willis, a Roswell teacher and 2010 Libertarian nominee for school superintendent: “This is not a federal mandate. It is states opting in.” She noted all the national tests critical to student success, the SAT, the ACT, the IB, the AP, are aligning their tests to Common Core and “it would be irresponsible to secede now from Common Core.”

Richard Woods, retired school administrator, former teacher and 2010 candidate: “I say we must have common sense over Common Core.  Georgia must control its educational destiny. Standards have direct bearing on student achievement.”

Other comments of note:

Jester ignored a direct question on her ouster from the DeKalb Board of Education by Gov. Nathan Deal, but did reference the district in a later response: “You only get a district like DeKalb in a state that lets it happens. DOE subsidizes failure.” (Using a new state law, Deal tossed all the veteran board members in DeKalb a year ago when the system’s accreditation was at risk. The state Supreme Court later upheld the removals, saying it did not matter if individual board members did nothing wrong; it was sufficient justification that the board members “cannot or do not work well together. The imminent loss of accreditation is a failure of the board as a whole all the same.”)

Dawes called for a teacher evaluation system that’s tough on teachers because teachers will then “rise to the challenge.” In a question related to increasing parent accountability, Dawes said, “It’s not parents who need to be made accountable.”  School officials and teachers need to be held accountable, she said.

Woods called the CRCT an “autopsy report,” and urged the use of tests that are more helpful in moving students forward such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. He said Georgia could use the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a baseline.

Willis said Georgia ought to align its grading scale to other states, such as Iowa where a 60 is the threshold for passing. In Georgia, a 70 is passing. “We are not at the bottom if would align our grading practices with other states in the union,” she said.

On his lack of an education background, Johnson said, “What you need is leadership. You need to understand leadership is transferable”

Fort said the state school chief in Georgia ought to be an appointed position rather than an elected one. “I should be the last elected state school superintendent here,” he said.

Bell cited his cost-cutting record as a county commissioner in Hall. “I have taken a nine-figure budget and made it an eight-figure budget,” he said.  Hall county wasn’t impressed either, they did not re-elect Mr. Bell.

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

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