Superintendent candidates deliver contrasting views of Georgia schools

People who watched a forum featuring the two candidates for state school superintendent heard two different depictions of Georgia’s school system: one already crumbling before a pandemic shook it to the ground and another that has emerged relatively unscathed and is doing “fairly well.”

The latter came from eight-year incumbent Richard Woods, a veteran educator and Republican who is seeking a third term. The dire description was from Alisha Thomas Searcy, a former Democratic state representative. She said she finds politics to be ugly and divisive but, as a mother of three, felt called to return to the fray by what she sees as a power vacuum in the Georgia Department of Education and an outdated approach to schooling.

“I am concerned that here in 2022 we are still trying to deliver a telegram education to a TikTok generation,” Thomas Searcy said. “We desperately need change.”

She cast Woods as a lethargic, insulated leader who’s been away from the classroom too long to know what teachers need.

Woods defended his experience and touted his record. He said he’s eased the burden on teachers by cutting the number of Milestones tests and reducing the time they must spend being evaluated. He said he also helped open the door this year to retired teachers to work full-time so they can fill staffing shortfalls.

“If I was back in the classroom today I would be one of the most fantastic teachers that a student can have,” Woods said. “Once you are a teacher you are always a teacher.” He said teaching doesn’t require technology or “fancy catchphrases” because “that is something that does not change what’s in your heart.”

The state school superintendent leads the education department and is responsible for monitoring schools and distributing state and federal funding to them while ensuring they follow the law and use tax dollars as intended.

The event at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta Thursday was hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a research and policy organization. The candidates were peppered with questions by a local superintendent, a lobbyist with a teacher advocacy group and an afterschool program leader.

The questions covered abiding problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic: low test scores and reading proficiency; poor mental health that has bedeviled students and classroom order; teachers feeling overworked and disrespected and fleeing the field.

The two generally agreed on policy. They differed chiefly over who would be most effective at implementation. For instance, both agreed it’s essential to increase literacy. Woods said new state learning standards and training in teacher colleges could address the problem. Thomas Searcy said the state needed a more hands-on approach in training teachers in the latest science about reading.

Thomas Searcy ran unsuccessfully for state school superintendent eight years ago. After leaving politics, she operated a small charter school network.

Woods, who taught 14 years before moving into other roles and then running for state office, keeps desks from his first classroom outside his office. It’s a reminder to keep thinking about teachers’ needs, he said.

About the Author

Editors' Picks