Georgians vote inthe 2018 primary election.

Photo: John Spink/AJC
Photo: John Spink/AJC

Voters whittle the Georgia superintendents field to three candidates

The current superintendent of Georgia’s schools will face off in November against  either the former president of the National PTA or the head of the state’s second largest teacher advocacy group, after fending off a lone GOP challenger in Tuesday’s primary election.

Incumbent Richard Woods had a commanding lead on Republican John Barge, who left the superintendent’s job four years ago to mount an unsuccessful campaign for governor.

On the Democratic side, former U.S. PTA chief Otha Thornton and Georgia Association of Educators president Sid Chapman dropped Sam Mosteller in a three-way race. Thornton got more votes than Chapman, but not a majority. The two will fight on to the July 24 runoff.

“As the only public educator in this race, we have a strong platform,” said Chapman,  a former high school social studies teacher in Clayton County who is the elected leader of the state affiliate of the National Education Association. He is endorsed by former Gov. Roy Barnes.

Thornton, a military contractor, will be touting his leadership credentials. Besides his time as the first black man at the helm of the national parent-teacher group, he was an Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq as chief of personnel and then as communications personnel director for the White House. He is endorsed by President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan.

“I’m thankful to God, my family and all the supporters who voted for me,” he said. He said he was pleased by the outcome in rural Georgia and that he could parlay it into a July 24 victory. “We’re going to finish the mission and win this nomination.”

One of the two Democrats will face former school administrator and businessman, Woods, who has led the state education agency as it adapted to an historic re-write of U.S. education law. The U.S. Every Student Succeeds Act replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. Georgia’s compliance plan, crafted with Woods’ guidance, was approved earlier this year.

There wasn’t much for voters to go on in this down-ballot race, with little daylight between the candidates on some major issues.

For instance, all have said school funding is a top priority and that teacher pay has suffered under years of budget shortfalls

The three Democrats were on the same page on another high-profile topic: what to do about school shootings. All three said arming teachers is a dumb idea.

It could prove a wedge issue in November.

Woods, like his challenger, said he’d leave the decision to local school leaders, as state law now provides.

The state superintendent oversees the Georgia Department of Education, and implements the policy of the governor’s Board of Education.

The job has a somewhat vague description under Georgia law. Among the duties: “to visit, as often as possible, the several counties for the purpose of examining into the administration of the school law, counseling with school officers, delivering public addresses, inspecting school operations, and doing such other acts as he may deem in the interest of public education.”

Much of the job involves holding local education officials accountable for the money they get from the state and from Washington. Governors from both parties have siphoned away some of the education department’s oversight role, with the help of the General Assembly. Some authority was shifted to a comparatively new agency, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

Still, the education department oversees a $10 billion state budget, most of which is distributed to Georgia’s 180 school districts. And the superintendent can have influence under the Gold Dome, since lawmakers sometimes look to the agency for insight into the effects of education policy.

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