GOP candidates for school superintendent lay out their differences

Below you will find an excellent report by AJC staff writer Nick Fouriezos, on Saturday’s debate between the two Republican runoff candidates for state school superintendent:

Luckily for voters, the candidates have pretty different views on each of those areas.

Mike Buck, a political neophyte but 33-year school system veteran, established himself in the May 20 Republican primary as the frontrunner with 91,435 votes (19.5 percent). Right behind him with 78,542 votes (17 percent) was Richard Woods, also a long-time educator, whose only political experience was a failed bid in 2010 for the superintendent position.

The two met for a one-hour breakfast debate at the Cobb County Republican Party headquarters in Marietta on Saturday, sharing the impressive feat of forcing a runoff after besting far better-funded candidates.

After a few perfunctory questions about the nature of the position and the candidates' qualifications, the national set of academic standards called Common Core emerged as the key issue.

Some view Buck, who is the acting chief of staff for current state School Superintendent John Barge, as a carbon copy of his boss, partly because he supports the Common Core standards which were adopted and implemented over the last few years.

"We have to raise the rigor of the tests. The old testing format was outdated," Buck said. "We are into our third year of implementation. The teachers and students don't need us to rip out the standards and start new."

Woods disagreed, citing the U.S. Constitution – a recurring source for the former social studies teacher – as grounds to dismiss Common Core and adopt what he considers as a more tailored testing process.

"We have a constitutional right to decide what goes into our tests," Woods said. "I believe that you should look at what you need to teach first and then decide what to put in that test. I think that was a bad error on the Department of Education and Barge."

It was clearly the more vocal sentiment in the room of politically-active conservatives that Common Core dumbed down testing, rather than improving it. Buck received groans from the crowd, cuing the moderator to ask for quiet.

Whether that remains the most popular position will be determined at the polls. Buck seemed secure in his support of the standards – and aware of whom he would be working with while in office.

"What I have also said is that my opinion is not the most important opinion," Buck said. "It is also the opinion of the governor's office, the legislature, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the PTA and our military."

He also touted a figure saying that 70 to 75 percent of Georgia teachers want to stand pat on current standards.

When discussing alternative educational options such as charter schools, there was similar distinction between Buck, who has the backing of traditional educators, and Woods, who touts a host of educational reforms.

The candidates said they supported charter schools as alternatives to public schools, though both said they did not vote for the charter school amendment in 2010 due to problems with the bill.

Woods described the charter-school option as an intrinsic right.

"We need to fight for the right of our parents to be autonomous," he said.

Buck's endorsement came with a caveat.

"I don't have a thing in the world against charters," Buck said. "But as the state superintendent, it is my job to make sure that public school is the choice for parents."

The debate moved to rapid-fire answers about firearms in schools, Department of Education staffing and test frequency. Woods said he would have carried a gun to protect students and teachers, would like to launch a full audit of the DOE to assess budget issues and would work to decrease the frequency of tests.

Buck said he preferred hiring more school resource officers over allowing more firepower and described frequent testing as an accountability measure. He also believed the DOE is already understaffed, especially after recent budget cuts.

"We are not a top-heavy, administrative-laden department," he said. "We took a 25 percent in our central office budget last year. I had to send good people home."

The closing statements were typical fare, though Buck managed to throw in a stinger when he was chosen to be the first to finish.

"I am the only candidate who can hit the ground running from day one," he said.

The statement was similar to the slogan on Woods' campaign website, "Ready to lead on day one."

And while it's true that Woods could be ready to start from the get-go, it's hard to imagine him having an easier transition than Buck's move from the office next door.