In this 2010 AJC file photo, Kathy Cox bids goodbye to state Department of Education workers, leaving for a job as CEO of a non-profit education group in Washington. Bob Andre, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

After 16 years, Georgia’s former state school chief returns to the classroom

Kathy Cox is back in the classroom, a Republican encased in amber.

Last Friday, after a 16-year absence, Cox finished her first semester as a high school teacher. Her U.S. history students have made it through the Gilded Age. The 20th century looms.

“This is a very hard job. I understand why it’s a young person’s game. My knees are killing me,” Cox, 54, acknowledged during a free period — before final exams resumed.

If you are a student of Georgia politics, you’ll remember Cox as the young woman who, in 2002, made the improbable leap from teacher to state school superintendent, outpolling both Sonny Perdue and Saxby Chambliss in a November election that heralded Georgia’s shift to Republican rule.

(Those latter two gentlemen were elected governor and U.S. senator, respectively.)

If you’re a graduate student of politics, you’ll remember her as Kathy “with a ‘K’” – to distinguish her on the ballot from Cathy “with a ‘C’” Cox, a Democrat of no kinship who served as secretary of state.

But if you’re one of her new students at Eagle’s Landing High School in Henry County, you’ll know Kathy Cox as one of the few public school teachers in Georgia with her own Wikipedia entry.

And you’ll know that, as state school superintendent, Cox once won $1 million on a quiz show and tried to give it all away. The Great Recession interfered.

Returning to grueling, 12-hour days at the head of a classroom may be just as improbable as Cox’s 2002 victory. “I’m young. I wasn’t ready to retire or anything,” she said, despite the aching knees. “I’ve been working as a consultant, and that’s just not what I like. I love schools. I love everything about schools.”

The decision wasn’t altogether altruistic. She needed to be closer to her elderly mother. And she was short eight years’ service for a full draw-down on her state teacher’s pension.

Things have changed since Cox last taught. The internet arrived. Which, in terms of access to more information, is a good thing. As a platform for civic discourse, it has fallen short.

At her last high school in Fayette County, the student body was 60 percent white. Eagle’s Landing High is more than 80 percent African-American. But in her consulting job, Cox specialized in teacher recruitment – teachers of color, in particular.

“I want to inspire some of these kids to be a teacher. I feel so strongly about it – that’s another reason why I came back,” she said.

Yet it’s hard to get past the fact that, in Henry County, a former politician is teaching American political history to high school students.

“They all know who I was. They still have a lot of questions about what I did. I’ve shared a lot with them, mainly as motivation,” Cox said. She considers it her mission to explain that politics is more than the messages churned from the White House, 140 characters at a time.

“I grew up in Watergate, so I know what it’s like to be turned off by what you’re seeing on the news. But it’s even worse now,” Cox said. “I want to be that counterbalance. I want them to see a regular, every day person who went into politics, made it in politics and left politics pretty much with my good reputation still intact. I didn’t have any scandal. I’m not facing any jail time. They need to see that.”

Cox is also an example of someone who tried to do the right thing, but in the end wasn’t allowed to. Take that 2008 quiz show: Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian from Alpharetta, was the host of “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”

The winning question that Cox got right: Who is the longest-serving British monarch? Georgia’s school superintendent correctly said Queen Victoria. (That, too, has changed since Cox has been gone. The correct answer is now Queen Elizabeth II.)

Cox announced that she would split her $1 million winnings between three state-owned schools: Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon; Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in Clarkston and Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring.

ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A 5th GRADER?: Georgia State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox (L) wonders about a tricky question with host Jeff Foxworthy (C) and Jonathan (R) on the two-hour Season Three premiere of ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A 5th GRADER? airing Friday, Sept. 5 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Mike Yarish/FOX
Photo: see caption

But her largesse was complicated by the fact that she and her husband, a home builder whose business had collapsed, filed for bankruptcy two months later. Creditors came after the cash. In the end, only half of the $1 million went to Cox’s chosen charities.

As I recall, Cox was the first major elected official in Georgia to be publicly jarred by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Later, others would share similar stories, including two gubernatorial candidates: Republican Nathan Deal in 2010 and, eight years later, Democrat Stacey Abrams.

But in truth, Kathy Cox is more than a lesson in politics as a human enterprise. Her 149 students at Eagle’s Landing High School need to know that their teacher is an actual exhibit, a specimen worth the examination.

She is what a Republican in Georgia used to look like.

Cox was first elected to the state House in 1998. She served two terms, taking leaves of absence from her classroom during winter sessions of the Legislature. She was considered a more moderate member of the House GOP caucus. In 2001, she supported Gov. Roy Barnes’ effort to pull down the 1956 state flag and its Confederate battle emblem.

Cox was elected state school superintendent in 2002. She’s credited with raising classroom standards in elementary and high schools. A low point was her attempt to placate religious conservatives by striking references to “evolution” in school curriculum, replacing the word with “biological changes over time.”

Most importantly, Cox’s tenure as state school superintendent coincided with President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program to beef up the federal role in holding local schools accountable for student performance.

Cox also had a strong ally in Gov. Sonny Perdue, who would be one of the creators of Common Core, a voluntary, state-by-state effort to set uniform benchmarks for elementary and high school students.

Within a few years, in the midst of the “tea party” revolt, Republican grassroots activists would condemn both initiatives.

In 2013, after Perdue had left office, the Georgia Republican party condemned Common Core as something that “obliterates Georgia’s constitutional autonomy.” Perdue eventually repudiated the thing he helped create.

By then, in 2010, Cox had left Georgia and her job as state school superintendent to become CEO of a non-profit called the U.S. Education Delivery Institute. Its mission was to help states develop strategies to implement those carrots and sticks passed down by the federal government.

“You know — all that stuff that has kind of gone away,” Cox said ruefully.

I asked Cox if she were still a Republican. “Um, yes. I consider myself to be a Republican,” the high school teacher said. “I will tell you, though, I’m not – and I don’t make any bones about this – I’m not a [Donald] Trump supporter. Never have been, never will be. I don’t know what that makes me.”

Cox is staying out of politics now. She supports Gov.-elect Brian Kemp’s proposed $5,000-a-year pay raise for all public school teachers in Georgia. But she has an additional suggestion.

“One of the things I have thought about – I wish we could find a way for new teachers to be spared a full load,” Cox said. “They’re getting paid less than an experienced teacher. Why don’t we give them fewer students, so they’re not absolutely overwhelmed?”

Her high school saw two rookie teachers disappear this semester, unable to cope. The job is a hard one, and students a challenge. “They ran all over me the first couple of weeks. I had to come back and hit the re-set button,” Cox said.

But she had an advantage. “I’m living proof that you can get through this. I know it will get better,” Cox said.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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