Candidates fielded questions for two hours during a forum conducted by the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity at Roswell Street Baptist Church.
Six Democrats and nine Republicans are running for the seat now held by Georgia Superintendent John Barge, who opted not to seek re-election so he could challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in the May 20 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Republicans who attended the debate were Nancy Jester, Kira Willis, Mary Kay Bacallao, Ashley Bell, Richard Woods and Fitz Johnson. Democrats present were Jurita Mays and Tarnisha Dent.
Common Core unpopular but views differ
Few of the candidates had anything good to say about the much maligned Common Core national testing standards, though some said the state was stuck with the standards and should try to make the best of a bad situation.
Nancy Jester, an actuarial consultant, called the standards pushed by the federal government and adopted by 45 states “quasi-governmental” and “another bureaucracy.”
“That’s six-figure jobs that don’t help the classroom,” said Jester, who served on the DeKalb County Board of Education.
State standards should be developed by Georgians for Georgians, Jester said.
Common Core is in Georgia, said Kira Willis, a graduate coach at a Fulton County charter school, and educators have to make the most of what has been adopted, even though it may not be ideal.
“We’ve got to stop changing the standards on our teachers,” Willis said.
It’s possible to raise the bar above what Common Core requires, she said, and “we can do that with what we have.”
“Standards does not equal curriculum, and we need to remember that,” Willis said.
But Mary Kay Bacallao argued the word “standards” has been used merely to circumvent laws preventing the federal government from sponsoring a common curriculum.
The former member of the Fayette County Board of Education is vehemently opposed to Common Core.
“I will work with everything I have to fight against Common Core,” Bacallao said.
Ashley Bell, who chairs a charter school in Gainesville, maintains the standards are an example of the federal government working to undermine local control over education.
“There is no way you can create a national standard with an apples to apples comparison,” said Bell.
Others, such as Richard Woods, who ran for the seat in 2010, and Cobb native Fitz Johnson, said standards should be rigorous, should give students an opportunity to compete and should be measurable. Johnson’s three children graduated from public schools in the city of Marietta.
Jurita Mays, one of two Democrats at Saturday’s debate, said national standards are needed.
“It gives you a guideline,” said Mays, a Decatur educator. “It gives you a road map.”
Still, Common Core isn’t perfect, she said, and it’s impossible to “cookie cut schools.”
It can be a blueprint but shouldn’t be the end of the road, said the other Democrat, Tarnisha Dent, a science instructional coach at an Atlanta high school.
“I’m waiting on a curriculum that fosters a continued thirst for knowledge,” Dent said.
Federal funding called ‘crony capitalism’
Funding from federal and corporate grants also caught strong words Saturday from some candidates. Grants can be extended to school systems for a variety of purposes, such as purchasing new technology, paying some salaries or funding programs.
Jester said too often there is a “left-wing agenda” attached to the federal money and she believes the state should not accept it.
Bacallao agreed, calling the grants an example of “crony capitalism” and vowing to never take a federal grant, if elected, for “anything, anytime, anyhow.”
“We have Bill Gates spending $67 million here in Georgia to promote Common Core. I don’t want that money,” Bacallao said.
Bell said there is no amount of money the federal government could offer is worth trading the “sovereign rights of this state or parents.”
“Sometimes these federal grants come with strings and sometimes they come with chains,” he said, pointing to Common Core.
Woods agreed some grants can compromise Georgia’s authority to make decisions for itself.
“If we can’t control it, we don’t need it,” Woods said.
When grant funding runs out, Willis said, federal programs the state has opted into remain, but Georgia is left without a way to carry them out effectively. It becomes an unfunded federal mandate.
“We need to get the federal government out of our state,” Willis said.
Johnson, of Marietta, said he was also generally opposed to using most federal grants but left the door open for accepting them.
“We must evaluate them and make sure they’re good for us,” Johnson said.
Dent wants to see school districts stop promising success only to obtain a grant.
“We promise to do a dance and we do the dance for the length of the grant and then once it’s over we don’t know what to do,” Dent said.
Mays called herself “middle of the road” and said some grants are good for schools while others can bring unwanted consequences.
Providing parents with a choice through charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent of the local boards of education, received varying levels of support.
Dent said she wants to foster charter schools that work alongside traditional schools, such as career academies that focus on vocational learning, but said she won’t support sending a district’s best students to charter schools and leaving public schools with the label of “failing.”
“I will support charters that will work in conjunction with our public schools,” Dent said.
But the choices offered by charter schools are needed, Jester argued.
“Charter schools are public schools. Period. The end,” Jester said.
Jester promised to bring charter schools to districts that don’t have them now through incubator programs such as those she said have been successful in Tennessee.
“It’s an eight-track system and we’re in an iPod world,” Jester said of Georgia’s charter system.
Bell chairs a charter school he said is successful because it has the ability to act independently and make choices best for its students. His school made personal finance courses mandatory and approved giving school resource officers rifles after several school shootings occurred nationwide.
It’s that kind of local choice, Bell said, that makes charter schools a viable option for parents.
Willis also works in a charter school and said school choice is an important part of her platform.
“We are giving our students abilities to follow that passion and that promise,” Willis said.
Charter schools can return types of learning that have left traditional classrooms, Woods said, like career readiness and technological education.
Bacallao taught in a public school in the late 1980s she said she would not have sent her children to attend.
“I’m for every kind of school choice,” Bacallao said. “I’m for local control of charter schools.”
Johnson, too, supports parental choice.
“If that’s a charter school, if that’s a home school, if that’s a virtual school, that’s where that child needs to go,” Johnson said.
If no one candidate receives 50 percent of the primary vote in the state superintendent’s race, a runoff election will be held July 22.