Superintendent Richard Woods and Democratic challenger Alisha Thomas Searcy shared contrasting visions for the future of public school in a panel discussion Thursday at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios in Atlanta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
The two candidates vying to lead Georgia’s public schools shared a stage Thursday to sound off on the top issues facing teachers and students at a forum sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
Incumbent Republican Superintendent Richard Woods listed his achievements over his eight years in office and pledged to build on them if re-elected. Before taking office, Woods spent more than 29 years in public education as both a teacher and an administrator.
Former state Rep. Alisha Thomas Searcy served six terms in the state House before serving as superintendent of schools at Ivy Preparatory Academies, an all-girls charter school in Atlanta. She has three school-age children and said her experience as a lawmaker, superintendent and mother make her the best fit for the job.
How to pay for the education of the state’s 1.6 million students is a perennial topic of discussion, but Georgia is in a unique position this year with billions of dollars in federal COVID relief money to spend.
“Over $6 billion has been pumped into the k-12 system, but there’s a couple of things with that that we really need to be thinking about,” said Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education President Dana Rickman. “That’s a lot of money to be spent over a very short runway, and a significant portion of that, 80% of it, is going directly to the districts.”
That raises questions about what the districts are doing with the money, what the state can do to support them and what happens when it runs dry, she said.
And despite the influx of federal funds, the state continues to foot the bulk of the bill to educate its students, doling out nearly $11 billion to teach the state’s 1.6 million students.
That money is allocated according to the 1985 Quality Basic Education Act, which some experts say is due for an update.
A group of powerful state senators is set to meet Friday to talk about changes to the long-running formula intended to give extra help to Georgia schools that teach students who don’t speak English, have special needs or other learning barriers.
Searcy said she’s hopeful the committee will approve some changes, having seen the flaws with the system firsthand.
“It was one thing for me to experience this as a legislator, spending 12 years on the House Education Committee, spending several years on the House Appropriations Committee, in passing this education budget,” she said. “It was a different experience as a superintendent, looking at the allotment sheets and trying to figure out, of the 19 segments, how are classes configured? Do we have enough students to draw down funding for an assistant principal or school counselor?”
“As a superintendent, I didn’t want to have to make decisions based on that. I wanted to be able to make decisions based on what’s best for the children that are in my schools. And so we have to take this moment in time to address our funding formula.”
Woods argued for a more incremental approach.
“One of the things I look at is why has the General Assembly or why have past governors been unable to make a change,” he asked. “When I was in the classroom starting off, I had a chalkboard, and my technology was an overhead projector. You can see that funding and the classroom do not line up even today. So, it is trying to look at resources. That’s one of the things we’re talking (about) with the governor and the General Assembly. Instead of trying to tackle and eat the whole elephant at one time, let’s look at measured approaches, look at things that are doable, let’s look at trying to make sure that we provide flexibility to our districts so that they can make the calls on areas that are important to them.”
Woods added that the state Department of Education is in talks with the federal government about extending the deadline to spend the money from Washington.
Ken Zeff, executive director of educational nonprofit Learn4Life Metro Atlanta, showed the candidates survey data listing a range of difficulties students report hampering their education from a lack of food or a safe place to study to being distracted by caring for siblings. According to a Professional Association of Georgia Educators report, 61.1% of teachers who are leaving the profession before 20 years list burnout or feeling overwhelmed as a top reason.
Caring for students facing mounting crises takes a major toll, Zeff said.
“This takes us to a place where half of the teacher population says that they would admit they’re planning on leaving in the next five years,” he said. “Let that sit for a second. Now, we don’t know if that’s actually going to happen. We don’t know for sure if teachers are actually going to leave. But think about running an operation where half the operation says they want to leave in a couple of years.”
Searcy said during her time as superintendent at Ivy Preparatory Academies in Atlanta, the teacher retention rate grew to 75% from 25%.
“That was because of the pressures that come with testing,” she said. “It was because of the teachers being overwhelmed with paperwork and other administrative responsibilities. It was because of behavior. It was because of pay. And I think it was also because of the overall lack of respect that we show to teachers and to education in general.”
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Searcy said she attacked the problem by listening to what teachers needed and taking action, including by providing every teacher with a $500 professional development budget, instituting rewards programs, providing better feedback and celebrating returning teachers.
“Those are the things that we put in place that allowed us to get from 25% to 75% teacher retention across all of our schools,” she said. “That’s the same thing that I will do as state school superintendent, I’m going to listen to what teachers need, I’m going to work with the legislature, I’m going to work with partners across agencies and I’m going to get teachers what they need.”
In her response, Searcy took a dig at Woods.
“While I appreciate experience from 30 years ago in the classroom, unless you’ve taught in the class in the last two years, you don’t know anything about teaching in Georgia, and in public education, and so we’ve got to listen to the people who are doing the work,” she said.
Woods said his two terms have seen major improvements for teachers’ quality of life, including the culmination of Gov. Brian Kemp’s promised $5,000 raises this year, a burnout report designed to solve the problems that lead teachers to quit and a major reduction in the number of state-mandated tests.
“And we also were able to reduce the number of observations that every teacher was to receive, going back to six per year. We lowered the weight of our testing to make sure it was fair and more accountable,” he said. “And so that was (what) we tangibly did, understanding as a teacher, what it was like to be in a classroom.”
“And by the way, if I was back in the classroom today, I would be one of the most fantastic teachers that a student can have. Once you are a teacher, you are always a teacher. And again, teachers don’t need technology. They don’t need fancy catchphrases to do that. That is something that does not change when it’s in your heart.”
Both candidates pledged to increase mental health resources for both teachers and students if elected.
The 90-minute conversation covered a variety of other issues, including remediating pandemic learning loss, the role of assessments and accountability and cooperation with pre-K, college and business partners.
A video of the full event will be posted to the Georgia partnership’s website in about a week, Rickman said.
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