Real choice for superintendent

July 8, 2014 

The Georgia state school superintendent's races present the rarity of late in Georgia politics: Both the Democratic and Republican runoff candidate pairs present actual contrasts in philosophies of how the position should operate and how each candidate would govern.

Republican candidate Mike Buck is the candidate most closely aligned with the policies of the current administration. As a member of current Superintendent John Barge's staff he supports the current Common Core standards and understands that any changes to them should come from the school board. Buck has made most of those currently occupying GOP elected offices comfortable with the idea of his ascension.

By contrast, Richard Woods represents essentially the forth place finisher from the school superintendent's race of 2010 - when only two people were on the ballot. Those within the GOP establishment who wanted a challenge to then-Super Kathy Cox had prepared to support Roger Hines, who exited the race a week before qualifying. Kathy Cox resigned her position just after qualifying and removed her name from the ballot, leaving only Barge and Woods for voters to choose from.

Woods represents the wing of the GOP that is against everything, and wants the current Common Core standards -- originally adopted under Kathy Cox and then-Governor Sonny Perdue as Georgia Performance standards -- repealed. While this is a popular position with many, the problem as with most policies are in the details, or in Woods' case, his lack of them. As is custom with those from the "against everything, always" section of the GOP, Woods can't or won't specify what would replace these standards, other than the platitude of "something better." He argues that Georgia should not be moving ahead with new standardized tests approved by the state School Board, again saying that new and "better" tests must be developed. It almost seems he wants to pretend Georgia's students can enter a holding pattern for a few years until we figure this out to his supporters' satisfaction.

Buck understands that we have students in classrooms every day, and that the uncertainty, misunderstanding and paranoia surrounding Common Core and standardized testing does not mean we can stop everything and wait two to three years before we find "something better." Educators have worked hard over the last decade to transition to Georgia's more rigorous curriculum and Buck vows to continue to forge ahead while working through existing rough patches. Woods would have us pretend that a state that has spent decades in the education cellar can afford to suspend activities at the state level while those who are against everything decide on something they can support.

Quite notably, it is disappointing that neither Republican candidate voted for the recent Charter Schools amendment. For a candidate who supports charter schools, voters must look to the Democratic primary runoff.

The Democrats have equally compelling contrasting views from candidates Valarie Wilson and Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan. Wilson has rallied the Democratic establishment (yes, Georgia still has one of those) and best represents the Democratic version of the status quo party line: Money is what is needed to fix education, and please leave everything else alone. Morgan, on the other hand, is an outspoken advocate of public charter schools and the need for those trapped in failing schools to have choice. This has drawn the ire from that same Democratic establishment. Morgan can take solace in the fact that the areas where the recent amendment authorizing charter schools received the strongest support in areas with high concentrations of Democratic voters.

Turnout will be an interesting item to watch for the Democratic side, as it's their only statewide race yet to be decided. Local races such as DeKalb's runoff for Sheriff will drive turnout in sporadic pockets across the state, making the model of who will vote - and what their desire for school choice is - a key in determining the Democratic nominee.

Perhaps one of the great ironies of the Democratic race is that the establishment Democrats are going after Representative Morgan for being too Republican, while those who lead their ticket are all but claiming center-right credentials. Gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter voted for the so called "guns everywhere" bill and is OK with Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates. The U.S. Senate nominee can't seem to run enough ads showing her standing next to George H. W. Bush.

So at the end of the day, Democrats are openly willing to let their standard bearers pander to Republicans and centrists. But the potential nominee for a statewide office -- arguably the one most likely to win --is being opposed by core Democratic operatives because she might actually try to govern along the principles she presents herself to have.

Watch Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan, closely. Despite some vocal opposition she is receiving during her primary runoff, she is the current Democrat who is most likely able to win statewide. hat is if… .IF Democrats have the courage to nominate her.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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