Republican state school Superintendent holds off Democratic challenger

Republican state school Superintendent Richard Woods held a comfortable lead over Democrat Otha Thornton with only a handful of precincts yet to report early Wednesday. 

Thornton led in metro Atlanta and a handful of other counties around the state, which otherwise went for the incumbent.

Woods, a former teacher and school administrator, faced a significant challenge from Thornton, the former president of the National PTA, as Thornton outspent Woods at least 5-1.

Woods’ built an early lead, and held onto it throughout the night, in a race with at least 40 percent more ballots cast — more than a million additional votes — than when he was first elected four years ago. He wasn’t ready to call the race as midnight approached, but he sounded confident: “I’m very pleased with where we’re at, and look forward to the next four years,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We just appreciate the people of Georgia putting their trust in us once again.”

Voters had little to go on to distinguish between the two men and their platforms in this down-ballot race. They agreed on major issues, such as school funding and testing: they both wanted more money and fewer high-stakes exams. They only parted ways on hot-button cultural issues, such as guns. 

Thornton, a combat veteran, opposed arming teachers to discourage mass shootings while Woods favored current state law, which leaves the decision to local school districts.

The state superintendent leads the Georgia Department of Education, which holds the districts accountable to test scores and for their use of state funding for Georgia’s 1.8 million K-12 students.

Woods, 56, graduated from Kennesaw State University and earned a masters from Valdosta State. He said his teaching career — he taught high school for 14 years and rose through the administrative ranks — taught him what teachers needed to succeed. 

He said he relied on that experience to advise lawmakers as they passed laws that rolled back the testing mandates and opened the door to alternatives to the standardized state tests. His agency wrote the state’s successful application to comply with the overhauled federal education law that succeeded the No Child Left Behind Act. His application for the Every Student Succeeds Act provided for an “innovative” testing program, something his department is applying for now. It also changed the way schools are graded, reducing the emphasis on tests and favoring things like art and Advanced Placement courses.

Thornton, 51, a military veteran, made his career outside Georgia, but returned to work as a military contractor. He was president of the National PTA, and earned an endorsement from Arne Duncan, an education secretary under former President Barack Obama.

Woods turned that endorsement against Thornton, criticizing Duncan as an advocate of high-stakes tests. Woods said one of the first things he did after he was elected in 2014 was to send Duncan a letter lamenting the “pressure and punish” model of federal test-based accountability.

Woods said Tuesday that he has plans to emphasize proficiency in reading in math in elementary school and will focus on alternatives to the standard academic high school paths, emphasizing options such as dual enrollment.

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