Georgia School Superintendent John Barge stopped at Park Elementary in Harris County on Thursday as part of his monthly three-day tours of the state's public schools.
It's one of the constitutional duties of that office, he said. But it's also a good way to campaign for governor, and he didn't do or say anything to quiet the talk that he would challenge Gov. Nathan Deal for the Republican nomination in the 2014 primary.
So after he danced with pre-kindergartners, posed for photos and saw how the school district integrates technology into the classroom, Barge was asked about his potential gubernatorial candidacy and when he will decide.
"It is something that I'm considering," he said, "and we will probably be making a decision in the next few weeks."
Asked why he would want to be governor, Barge said, "Education in this state needs to be a priority. Education is economic development for this state. It's economic development for any community, and I just don't see that we are investing in education when two-thirds of our school districts aren't in school 180 days a year. So we've got to do some things differently."
Barge answered several other questions during his visit. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
What do you think of your tour?
"It's been a delightful visit. It's a great school. Kids are engaged. Teachers are using technology. Classroom procedures are nailed down pat. Students already know those procedures. I just saw a lot of excitement, students excited to learn and teachers excited to teach."
Why are you making a tour of the state?
"Well, first of all, it's really a constitutional obligation of the state school superintendent to visit schools. But it also keeps you well rounded. It keeps you connected to teachers, to what's going on in classrooms, the principal, and it gives them the opportunity to talk with me about things that they may be concerned about, to show off things that are going well, because so many times public education takes a beating, and there are a lot of good things going on, and this gives an opportunity to celebrate those good things."
In all your tours of Georgia's public schools, what's working best and what's behind it?
"Teachers. We've got some awesome teachers that are doing amazing things right now in some of the most difficult circumstances economically that we've ever faced. With furloughs and short school calendars, they're still out there teaching their hearts out and loving kids and getting some great results."
What's not working well and where do we need to improve the most?
"Funding. We've got to get our kids back in school for 180 days, and that's just not happening in most of our state."
The U.S. Department of Education withdrew $9.9 million from the state's $400 million Race to the Top education grant because the state hasn't based teacher and principal pay on performance evaluation. What's your reaction to that move?
"Well, first of all, the money hasn't been taken away. They have put us on notice that if we don't do some things that they could take it away. So we're working with them on that. Bottom line is, when the original Race to the Top grant was written, there were some very aggressive timelines put in place on the implementation of the teacher evaluation system and then statewide implementation of merit pay. There are some pieces of that that aren't ready. I will not move forward with a teacher evaluation system that we have not had time to prove is valid and reliable before we start basing our teacher contracts and salaries on that system. So we need another year of time to do that, and we're going to take it."
Now that there has been time since pulling away from PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), how will the state test students on learning the new Common Core standards instead?
"We're in the process right now of going through what we call the RFP process and getting that written and getting that out. We will be working with some other states in that process, but we're not to a decision point yet as to what it will be. So that's still to come. But to help teachers, whatever we end up with in 2014-15 will be similar in structure and format to the PARCC assessment, so if they're out there preparing students for an assessment like PARCC, keep doing that, because our assessment will have to have constructed response items and all those types of things that will be in PARCC. So it will be like that, but it will be something that we design."
You opposed the governor on the amendment that gave the state more ways to create charter schools. Gov. Deal's supporters got that amendment passed. How do you feel about that issue now?
"The issue never was charter schools themselves. I've always been very supportive of charter schools and still am. I guess it's yet to be seen what the final impact will be that the commission has, so there's still not enough time going forward to see where that is."