Common Core dominates school chief candidates’ debate

A debate Saturday between the two Republican candidates still competing for state school superintendent focused on Common Core standards, charter schools and testing practices.

Mike Buck, a political neophyte but 33-year school system veteran, finished first in the GOP primary due to support from groups ranging from traditional educators to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. His opponent, longtime educator Richard Woods, finished second while courting favor with new educators set on making changes. Their July 22 runoff will determine who gets their party’s nomination.

Questions Saturday at the Cobb County Republican Party headquarters in Marietta centered on the national set of academic standards called Common Core and testing keyed to those standards.

Some view Buck, the acting chief of staff for current state school superintendent John Barge, as an agent of the status quo, partly because he supports the already-implemented Common Core standards.

“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 The old testing format was outdated,” Buck said.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 Constitution – a recurring source cited by the former social studies teacher – as grounds to dismiss Common Core and adopt what he considers 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,” to accept Common Core.

In the room full of politically active conservatives, it was clear the predominant view of Common Core was not positive, with some saying it dumbs down testing. Buck got groans from the crowd, leading the moderator to ask for quiet from the peanut gallery.

The candidates said they supported charter schools as alternatives to traditional 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 preferred hiring more school resource officers over allowing more guns and described frequent testing as an accountability measure. He also said he believed the DOE is already understaffed, especially after recent budget cuts.