Five candidates seek to oust Woods as Georgia school superintendent

State school superintendents from, left to right, (top row): Republican John Barge, Democrat Jaha Howard, and Democrat James Morrow, Jr. Bottom row: Democrat Alisha Thomas Searcy, Democrat Currey Hitchens, and Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods, a Republican is running for reelection. (Handout)

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State school superintendents from, left to right, (top row): Republican John Barge, Democrat Jaha Howard, and Democrat James Morrow, Jr. Bottom row: Democrat Alisha Thomas Searcy, Democrat Currey Hitchens, and Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods, a Republican is running for reelection. (Handout)

Five challengers aim to topple Georgia’s two-term state school superintendent and seize control of the Department of Education during a turbulent time for teachers.

Richard Woods, a Republican, has held the office for eight years and wants another four. He will face predecessor John Barge in the May primary. Four Democratic candidates are also vying for the position.

Most of the candidates are talking about the culture war issues that have dominated educational policy recently. Book banning, critical race theory, mask mandates and other controversial school topics addressed during the legislative session.

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But several of the issues these candidates are talking about are timeless, such as public school funding, poor academic outcomes and a shrinking teacher pool.

Woods, a former teacher and school administrator from rural Georgia, supported GOP bills that would limit how teachers discuss race, let sports associations decide on transgender student participation, amend the process for removing books and affirm rights to see instructional materials. He said his education department’s implementation will ensure uniformity.

“It will put in place processes that will unite us as a state so it’s not so much Wild West out there,” Woods said.

Barge, the other Republican in the race who opted to run for governor rather than reelection in 2014, says the Legislature didn’t go far enough. He said he wants his old job back because of parent allegations about obscene materials in schools and because of transgender policies.

“Who is going to make a stand to make sure that children are being educated and not indoctrinated?” he asked.

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GOP lawmakers saw the potential of these issues last year. The Georgia General Assembly convened two months after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s office by courting parents opposed to COVID-19 safety measures, critical race theory and school books they deemed obscene.

Atlanta lawyer Currey Hitchens and Dr. Jaha Howard, a pediatric dentist elected to the Cobb County school board, said they were inspired to run, in part, in reaction to this political movement.

Hitchens, who recently left the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, said she read a book parents have attempted to ban from schools. “It’s about police violence against teenage kids, but that’s something that happens,” she said. “Things that happen are sometimes divisive but we still have to learn about them.”

She was referring to adopted state legislation that defines nine “divisive concepts” prohibited in classrooms. They involve generalizations, like saying one race is inherently superior or America is fundamentally racist.

Howard said Woods follows his party’s lead. Howard said he would push for more funding and call attention to problems like low literacy rates.

“So here we have somebody who’s touting all this educational experience, but when you get into a room of political sharks, he’s folding like a lawn chair,” Howard said.

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Alisha Thomas Searcy, a former Democratic state representative from Austell and charter school operator, ran for state superintendent eight years ago. She said she was inspired to run this time in part by “the ugliness of politics.” But she was more interested in school funding and teacher recruitment and retention. She thinks the state should be doing more to innovate.

“The pandemic should have been an opportunity to rethink, reimagine public education, and it appears that the desire is just to go back to quote-unquote normal,” Thomas Searcy said.

James Morrow Jr. coaches soccer and flag football in a Clayton County high school. The former social studies teacher is concerned about student violence and said schools need more police officers and stricter discipline.

“We’ve got to take drastic measures to get it done,” Morrow said. “Because we’re going to lose a lot of these kids, man, because they’re just pushing them through. They barely can read.”