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Superintendent candidates talk grad rates, testing

campaign coverage Decatur

Superintendent candidates talk grad rates, testing

From right to left: Valarie Wilson, Alisha Thomas Morgan, Richard Woods and Mike Buck get ready to answer questions during a League of Women Voters forum held on June 30. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
From right to left: Valarie Wilson, Alisha Thomas Morgan, Richard Woods and Mike Buck get ready to answer questions during a League of Women Voters forum held on June 30. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

From right to left: Valarie Wilson, Alisha Thomas Morgan, Richard Woods and Mike Buck get ready to answer questions during a League of Women Voters forum held on June 30. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Candidates running to become the next head of Georgia’s schools worked to distinguish themselves from their opponents during a June 30 forum held by the League of Women Voters of Atlanta Fulton County.

All four candidates who will appear in the July 22 primary runoff attended the forum. The Democratic runoff will feature Valarie Wilson, a former member of the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education, and Alisha Thomas Morgan, a state representative. The Republican runoff will feature Mike Buck, the chief of staff to outgoing superintendent John Barge, and Richard Woods, a former high school principal and teacher who currently works in the private sector.

Donna Lowry of 11-Alive served as moderator with guest panelists Carol Sbarge with WSB-TV and Dan Whisenhunt, editor and publisher of Decaturish.com.

Here are some of the questions the candidates received and their answers:

Q) As you might be aware, there’s a movement in Dunwoody, Ga. to create an independent school system. Georgia’s constitution limits the number of school systems. Would you support a constitutional amendment allowing new cities to create their own school systems?

Buck: “That’s a new one on me. Before I would consider a constitutional amendment to do other things to education, I would like for us very much to fully fund the educational systems that we’ve got and improve upon our past performance.”

Woods: “As an individual who has always spoken in favor of local control, I think this needs to be a local decision, and if the people of Georgia decide this is the pathway they want, then I’m all for that. If it’s the people of Dunwoody, if they believe it best serves their children and their community, then I am for that. First and foremost we still have to go through the process. That means following the Constitution and the rule of law, and if we do that and it’s something that the people of Georgia agree on, then it’s the proper step. I have no issues with that at present.”

Morgan: “We considered this legislation this session, and it’s why I want to emphasize tonight the importance of having a state legislator as a state school superintendent, who knows these issues, who has the relationships and the track record of getting things done in the Legislature and who can move over to the state department of education to do that. As a whole, I do not support this legislation currently. Philosophically I think it’s important for local communities to have the ability to choose for themselves if they want a school district, I think with this particular issue though, there are serious ramifications for DeKalb County in particular, and with all of the creation of new cities and new government, I’m deeply concerned about funding, I’m deeply concerned about what that will do to the overall school system, but as a whole I think that this should be something that as a state, we should consider to allow voters to consider for their own communities.

Wilson: “While I support local control, I believe it is important that we pay attention to the impact decisions such as this could have to an existing local school district. Being on the ground, working with city schools of Decatur, I know how challenged we are with our budget, and I know how challenged DeKalb County has been with its budget, and I think that we have to be very, very careful when we start looking at creating a separate school system, when the school system that we currently have hasn’t been a priority in the state of Georgia and it hasn’t been funded adequately. I do believe in local control. I do believe that the people should have the opportunity to speak, however I think that we should move very, very carefully on a situation like this because it could have negative impacts to the DeKalb County Schools system.”

Q) Georgia will no longer test students using the criterion referenced competency tests and will soon use the Georgia Milestones assessment system. What would you like to see happen with that test and what are your feelings on high stakes testing? 

Woods: “As far as the test goes, the CRCT and again the new path or Milestones that we’re looking at …I’ve always felt that such tests tend to me more of a student autopsy report. What we need to do is we need to move away from that and provide more of a diagnostic approach, something that’s smaller and shorter, that we look at as far as teachers implementing throughout the year so they can adequately measure a child’s progress.”

Morgan: “I am deeply concerned that we have moved to the Milestone test. …. For us to have adopted Common Core state standards, to lead as a state in this effort across the country, and then to pull ourselves out of …. the consortium of states that were participating in this effort that is working on creating a test, to then create our own as a state and not be able to compare ourselves in terms apples to apples to other states that are participating Common Core, I am deeply concerned about. I am absolutely opposed to high stakes testing. We have to move our students away from being great test takers, to being great thinkers, moving them to critical thinking which is why I like Common Core.”

Wilson: “I’m happy that we’re moving away from CRCT. I was always concerned we were always teaching to the test and teachers weren’t allowed to actually help children realize their full potential with CRCTs because we were preparing them for the test and they were missing so much more in that process. I do have concerns about Milestone. I hope that as we are moving through this process that we are able to move away from that, because I do believe that with Common Core we have the opportunity to actually prepare our children to be competitive globally. I don’t believe that this test will allow us to do that. I am adamantly opposed to high stakes testing because, yet again, we are teaching children for a test and we’re not really allowing children to grasp and to get a command of the 21st century skills that will be necessary for them to be successful.”

Buck: “I firmly believe we have to teach students how to think. We don’t need to teach to a test. That being said, we needed to move forward with the new assessment. The CRCT was very dated. We needed an assessment system that accurately reflects the content, that accurately reflects the rigor that gives us credibility as we move forward across this state in being able to get results that we build upon. I don’t like an autopsy. I don’t want something at the end of the year and there’s nothing you can do about it. We’ve got to enhance our ability to do formative assessments so that we can diagnose the issue and prescribe the treatments so at the end of the day, when the results do come in, we have had success with our young people.”

Q) What would you do to improve high school graduation rates?

Buck: “We have got to increase the number and quality of our graduates. One of the ways we’re going to do that is by our Pathways initiative where we help young people discover their passion. When we lose young people in public education, the vast majority of the time it’s not due to a lack of cognitive ability, or aptitude. They are bored out of their heads. If we can help them discover their passion and if we can show them the relevance of why they’re learning what they’re learning, they’re going to stick around. The other advantage with the Pathways it forms those relationships with a caring adult in the building. They’re going to take two or three courses from the same teacher.”

Woods: “First and foremost, we have to start with the foundational level and that means by the time that our kids leave fifth grade they need to be proficient at reading, writing and arithmetic, because those are the skills that will carry the child through to the rest of their lives, especially in the area of literacy. Literacy is something I’m very passionate about. If we can teach our kids to read, have a strong vocabulary we can open up the doors of opportunity. Also, we need to look at expanding the opportunities … a job or skill based diploma selection, even doing some improvements with our special needs kids.”

Morgan: “First of all, I don’t think that there’s a one size fits all solution for fixing this issue. I think these decisions need to be made at the local level where we understand the needs of students. Here are a few things that I would do. No. 1 I would make sure we have additional wraparound services at schools. We know why kids are dropping out. They have got to go to work. They’re taking care of their siblings or their own children. We have very structured school days where some kids just need other options. We also need to allow counselors to do their job and hire more counselors at the school level. If you have 400 students on your case load, how is it that you’re going to catch students who are about to drop out, who have social problems that need to be addressed? … Lastly we’ve got to catch them early. Before they get to high school, we know they can’t read in third grade, stop passing them along out of middle school into high school.”

Wilson: “I absolutely believe strong early preparation is important. That was one of the things that we focused on in the city of Decatur with our early childhood education program, making sure that we were reaching children early and helping them to be prepared as they went into the classroom. Statistics will show you that if you don’t reach a child early enough … they are now guessing bed rates in prisons related to children’s third grade reading scores and that’s something we’ve got to change. I also think it’s really important to have a relevant curriculum that children feel is essential to their lives. We do have to have those wraparound services, but we have felt such cuts in our funding for public education that we’ve lost social workers, we’ve lost nurses, and we’ve lost counselors. I think that we’ve got to get back to making sure that we are funding adequately.”

Q) The “Classrooms First for Georgia” bill (Senate Bill 390) requires, at a minimum, 65 percent of a system’s funds to be spent in the classroom. Do you support requiring schools to spend a certain amount of funding in the classroom and, if so, what should the percentage be? 

Morgan: “I remember that very vividly, and I remember voting against it because I don’t believe in prescribing an arbitrary number. I absolutely agree that the vast majority of dollars must be directed to the classroom. If we’re not spending money on students, what are we doing in public education? What we found when we looked at that legislation is the vast majority of school districts were actually spending more than 65 percent in the classroom, and those that were not were very far and few between and they were spending way too much money in the central office. I did not support that legislation because I don’t believe in an arbitrary number, but I absolutely support the philosophy that our dollars must be spent and focused on children.”

Wilson: “I absolutely don’t support that legislation. I think that again, the majority of funding for most school systems is spent in the classrooms. … I can tell you that with implementation of dollars, the majority of the districts in the state of Georgia actually put their dollars in the classroom.”

Buck: “I think the vast majority of our school systems do a tremendous job of getting the resources into the classroom. I don’t support an arbitrary number of 65 percent and one size does not fit all. Our districts are all very, very different. Transportation costs in rural districts are very, very, high. It’s not that they don’t want those resources to get into the classroom. It’s that they’ve got to get the young people to and from school. I don’t like the 65 percent arbitrary number. I’m a big fan of giving more flexibility with the available dollars to the districts that are high performing. The better you perform the more autonomy you have in how those dollars are spent.”

Woods: “I do not support the setting at an arbitrary limit, but I do think we need to be very good stewards of your money, the taxpayers’ money. … One of the things I plan to do as your next state school superintendent is to have a complete audit of the Department of Education. Look at it from a regulatory, personnel and also a fiscal standpoint, so that we make sure that we are spending the money efficiently. Also, to be a firewall in the area of unfunded mandates whether, that’s coming from the federal government or the state government, to make sure that we protect and have the available funds at the local level that is necessary.”