Personalities, priorities separate candidates to lead Georgia schools

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Georgia voters will choose between a traditional public school educator and an advocate for new alternatives when they select the next state superintendent in November.

Richard Woods, the incumbent, says he wants a third term to continue cutting bureaucracy so teachers have more time and freedom to teach. It’s a process the Tifton Republican says he could have implemented more quickly if he’d had the support he now enjoys from influential members of his party.

His challenger, Alisha Thomas Searcy, a former Democratic state representative from Austell, says Woods has done too little with his eight years in office. She contends she could implement rapid changes to improve outcomes, though she may not have the backing of her entire party.

At stake is control over the Georgia Department of Education, which is responsible for a third of the state budget. The agency distributes state and federal funding to schools while monitoring their academic performance and their compliance with laws and regulations.

The state superintendent has limited policymaking authority but can have an impact on tens of thousands of teachers and nearly 2 million students — not to mention their parents and taxpayers — by shaping educational standards and operating rules. The officeholder can also influence policy by shaping public opinion, advising lawmakers and forging alliances.

Woods clashed with former Gov. Nathan Deal, but has collaborated with Gov. Brian Kemp on initiatives like teacher bonuses and reductions of standardized testing. Kemp gradually replaced Deal’s appointees on the policymaking state education board, turning the balance in Woods’ favor.

“Did I want to get things done faster? Sure, but I just didn’t have the political clout nor did I have the votes,” Woods said.

The former high school social studies teacher and elementary school principal talks in the arcane language of education. He tosses around acronyms like TKES and LKES (teacher and school leader performance evaluations that he wants to make less punitive and burdensome) and SLOs (basically, more tests that Woods says he helped to eliminate).

Woods says he wants to improve outcomes by giving students more diploma options and updating the state educational standards for math and English. Standards define the knowledge and skills students should possess by each grade level.

His traditional approach is fodder for Searcy. One of her common refrains: Woods is offering a telegram education for a TikTok generation.

Searcy said she would push for more mental health intervention for students and said safety and teacher burnout are top priorities.

After leaving the state House, Searcy became executive director of Ivy Preparatory Academy, a network of charter schools in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. She promptly closed an online high school program and the state soon closed one of the three schools. The charter network’s own board closed a second after she resigned.

She said the schools were performing poorly when she arrived.

“All of those things predated my tenure,” Searcy said, adding that she had begun to turn the Gwinnett campus around and disagreed with the decision to close it.

The one school that endured, a school for girls in DeKalb, had rising proficiency rates in math and English during Searcy’s tenure.

Searcy said her title at Ivy Prep was changed to superintendent a year or so after her hire. She wields that in her campaign against Woods, asserting she has more leadership experience than he does.

When she was a lawmaker, Searcy co-sponsored legislation that led to a constitutional amendment establishing the State Charter Schools Commission.

Searcy has attracted critics for her support of charter schools and for her votes to create and then expand a program that sends tens of millions of dollars to private schools each year through scholarships funded by tax credits.

The Georgia Association of Educators is endorsing Woods, saying policies like those leave less money for traditional public schools. (Charter schools are publicly funded public schools governed by independent boards with government oversight.) Her “school choice” advocacy has also rankled members of her own party.

“I know a lot of Democrats who for years have been tremendously upset by the role Alisha has played in undermining the support for public education,” said Russell Edwards, a Democrat and member of the Athens-Clarke County Commission. “We’ve been following her career, just beating our heads against the wall.”

Stacey Abrams and other big-name Democratic candidates keep posing for pictures that exclude her, something Searcy complained about publicly.

“Many of you have asked me why I have been ostracized and excluded,” she wrote on Facebook, citing Abrams’ campaign and the One Georgia organization supporting it. “I encourage you to inquire directly with them.”

The Abrams campaign, One Georgia and the Democratic Party have photos that include Searcy and say they support everyone on their ticket. That would include Searcy, who won all 159 counties in her four-way primary election. So did Woods, with more than double her vote count.

But Rahn Mayo, a former Democratic state representative who voted with Searcy on the charter school legislation, said there does appear to be “an effort on the part of an apparatus, the party as a whole, the party leaders, the party bosses and others, to undermine a candidate who was duly elected in a competitive, contested Democratic primary.”

Meet the candidates for Georgia state school superintendent

Richard Woods, 60, the Republican incumbent, worked for Irwin County Schools for 22 years starting in 1988. He was a high school social studies teacher and athletics coach for 14 years. He then became an administrator for eight years, as an elementary school assistant principal, an elementary principal, an elementary curriculum director, a preschool director and an alternative school director. He was elected state school superintendent in 2014 and reelected in 2018.

Alisha Thomas Searcy, 44, the Democratic challenger, served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2003 through 2014. She then completed the Broad Superintendents Academy, and, in 2015, was hired as executive director then superintendent of Ivy Preparatory Academy, working there until 2018. She says she has worked as an educational consultant since then.

About the Author