Focus shifts to state superintendent's race

While overshadowed by the drama of the governor’s race, the contest for state school superintendent is gaining more attention, including a candidates’ panel Wednesday that drew nearly 200 education leaders from around the state.

Libertarian candidate Kira Willis, a last-minute addition to the agenda, joined Republican John Barge and Democrat Joe Martin at the Georgia Tech Research Institute Conference Center for the panel.

The session allowed the candidates to better define themselves, on issues from Race to the Top to the new math curriculum to charter schools, before an audience that included Superintendents Ramona Tyson of DeKalb County, Emily Lembeck of Marietta, Susan Andrews of Muscogee County and Jimmy Willis of Putnam County.

An administrator with the Bartow County schools, Barge presented himself as a fiscal conservative, saying that he will not expect Georgia taxpayers to counter the deep cuts to state education funding, but will instead reduce the Department of Education.

“I am not going to look at the public and say we need more money,” said Barge. “It’s been tough and I understand that. We will streamline what we have in the Department of Education. We have to decrease the amount of money we spend and start with our own house first.”

A Roswell high school teacher, Willis emphasized a return to local control, taking the strongest position against the federal Race to the Top grant program, of which Georgia is a finalist for a possible $400 million award. That money, said Willis, comes with too many strings.

“Race to the Top is one percent of the Georgia budget,” she said. “What is that going to accomplish? We ought to recuse ourselves from Race to the Top. As a teacher, what I see is that every time we get some great grant, the money goes to creating a position to police teachers. It doesn’t get into the classroom.”

With a background in finance and business, Martin aimed for the middle ground, maintaining that while he wanted the Race to the Top money, he saw flaws and overreaches in the state’s application for the competitive grant designed to spur and reward innovation.

“We don’t have all the answers here in Georgia. We need to be partners with the federal government. Anybody who thinks we can go off on our own is not in the real world,’’ said Martin. “But I don’t want anyone to say that if we win Race to the Top, we have magically solved all the problems, not even our funding problems because even with a $100 million a year for four years, we are already in the hole a billion dollars.”

The candidates at the panel, sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, found common ground on the need for options in high school other than a college prep track. But creating those options should be a local decision, said Willis.

“If somebody in Albany, Ga., is telling somebody in Roswell, Ga., that these groups of students are exactly the same, they are lying. They are delusional,” said Willis. “We have to allow local communities to determine their curriculum and their own graduation tracks. They are in better positions to figure out what is best for their students.”

A state PTA member asked a parent-driven question of the candidates: What would they do about the controversial integrated math that produced disappointing results on the recent state End of Course Test?

Barge said students don’t take the End of Course Test seriously since it counts for only 15 percent of their grade. Still, he said the new math approach in which math concepts such as algebra and geometry are integrated and taught together is not working. While he applauded the new math standards set by the state, Barge said the approach to teaching them together needs to be reconsidered.

Asked about charter schools, all the candidates endorsed them. Martin offered a few caveats. “We have to make sure our host school systems and their charter schools have good working relationships. I do have reservations about the new state Charter School Commission. But as much as I embrace the notion of charter schools, I am adamantly opposed to any form of vouchers. They really do hurt public education and erode the bedrock of democracy.”