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Candidates to lead Georgia schools talk about their priorities

Richard Woods touted his experience with education policy while his challenger in the Georgia superintendent's election, Otha Thornton, highlighted his own background as a national PTA president. 

Woods, the incumbent and the Republican nominee since May, and Thornton, who emerged as the Democrats' candidate in last month's runoff, sat side-by-side, fielding questions at an education forum Wednesday. 

They played up their different backgrounds — Woods a local educator well-versed in state politics and Thornton a retired military officer, with combat service in Iraq, who moved in national circles before returning to his native Georgia. 

Yet they differed little on the central issues: the only big policy that seemed to separate them at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum Wednesday was the General Assembly’s near doubling this year of the tax credit for private school tuition. The cap on the tax-credit scholarship program was raised to $100 million, and Thornton said more than once that he would work to reverse it: "That's taking money out of the public schools," he said. 

Woods had no vote on that law, but it was approved by his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly, which may be why he said nothing about it during the hour-long event.

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The panelists included a teacher, a principal, a recent University of Georgia graduate and the president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The audience got a few queries in, as well.

These two men had heard most of the questions before.

How would you improve the quality of teaching? How would you help low-income students succeed? How would you keep schools safe? 

Voters may have a hard time choosing between them: the two candidates agreed on most things. Both said that teachers should be paid more, that more attention should be paid to students' psychological and emotional health, that there’s a place for online schooling and that low-income students need more support. 

And they’re on the same page with testing. When Woods said he would continue pushing to reduce the number of standardized state tests, Thornton followed with, "Basically, the same here."  Then, when Woods said he wants to "streamline" the state's testing regimen to free up teachers’ time, Thornton followed with, "Same thing here as far as streamlining." 

Even when Thornton, who is black, linked the private school tuition program to Georgia’s anti-integration reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision more than 60 years ago, he was careful not to blame Woods, noting that the tax credit program predated him.

Both styled themselves as leaders who could work connections under the Gold Dome for educational wins.

Woods, for instance, in an apparent reference to predecessor John Barge, whose disagreements with Gov. Nathan Deal were intense enough to prompt him to challenge Deal in the last GOP gubernatorial primary, touted his design for the state’s education plan under the new federal law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“We received acclaim for what we did,” Woods said. “I think we created a plan that was successful.”

He didn’t mention that Deal disliked the plan so much that he refused to sign it.

Thornton said he would use the superintendent’s post to woo lawmakers, most of whom are Republicans, to his side on contentious issues like the tax credit scholarships. Yet he surely alienated Deal and many other Republicans when he helped to lead a grassroots campaign to defeat the GOP-led and Deal-backed constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District in 2016.

So far, the campaign for the state's top education post has received little attention compared with the gubernatorial campaign and its national coverage.

The two gubernatorial candidates have starkly differing visions of public schooling, but it doesn’t come up much on the campaign trail. Brian Kemp backs “school choice” and favors the tax credit scholarships that Thornton opposes. Stacey Abrams has said more about schools at her campaign stops, positioning herself as the “public education” governor and railing against the tax credit scholarships.

Education consumes more than a third of the $26 billion state budget and takes as much or more of the proportion of local taxes. It also shapes the lives of half a million high school students and nearly 1.3 million middle and elementary school children.

UPDATE: video of superintendent candidates now available. Their discussion starts 35 minutes into it (after a presentation of the results from a poll about education).

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