School Choice Proponents Fill Georgia’s Superintendent Ballot

Published January 24, 2014

Three candidates for Georgia state superintendent are running on school choice platforms against current superintendent John Barge. All say an updated funding formula and new accountability measures are necessary to expand choice.

Calling herself a taxpayer watchdog, accountant Nancy Jester uncovered $54 million in deceptive budgeting while serving on the DeKalb County school board.

“If we had had financial integrity indicators in place, that wouldn’t have happened,” said Jester, a Republican candidate for superintendent. “Our funding formula is byzantine, and the cost of compliance is high so that’s a cost driver that does nothing for kids.”

Barge is challenging Gov. Nathan Deal in the gubernatorial primary. If he loses there, he will defend his superintendent spot in November.

Bipartisan Support for Choice
Jester notes parents whose children attended her local, high-performing public school jumped to place their children in a new language-immersion charter that opened nearby.

“Choice drives success, so people aren’t trapped in failing schools,” Jester said. “And what people want is different.”

As a Georgia House Education Committee member, Democratic candidate for superintendent Alisha Morgan has sponsored Parent Trigger legislation and voted for charter schools and vouchers.

“We have to move away from the one size-fits-all education system,” Morgan said. “Charter schools, intra-district transferring and a number of other options…are not available to all students, and particularly outside the urban and metropolitan [areas].”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much educational freedom,” said Republican candidate Kira Willis, who has been a teacher for more than 20 years. “Students need to be able to pursue what excites them and keeps them interested in learning. That means choices.”

Republicans Against Common Core
Barge and Morgan support national curriculum and testing mandates called Common Core. Willis and Jester oppose Common Core.

“Nothing good comes of centralization,” Jester said. “Ask the Soviets about that.…We do need adjustments in Georgia’s core curriculum—I just don’t think Common Core is the way to go.”

Common Core restricts schools from specializing and offering parents different kinds of education to fit their children, Willis said: “We have changed the rules on teachers just about every year, and we’re changing the standards and teachers are trying so hard to keep up.”

Morgan wants to “allow educators to try new things, meet the needs of the twenty-first-century students.” Creating opportunities for community and parent involvement in schools can drive results, Morgan said.

Variety of Reform Ideas
Choice can’t occur until the funding formula gets fixed, Jester said.

“Every state that borders us spends less per pupil,” Jester said. “We need to go to a model … where they accredit schools based on academic performance results and some financial metric.”

Although Morgan agrees the state’s funding formula needs an update, the highest priority should be how the state spends current education funds, she said.

“We need to make sure teachers have the support and resources they need to do their job well,” Morgan said. “We need effective teachers.”

Unifying the funding formula would foster differentiation across schools, leading to more options for students, Willis said.

“Where students go to school should not be based on ZIP code; we’re doing a huge disservice to our families by saying that,” she said.

States to Emulate
“There are lots of states that have methods we can adopt,” Jester said. She pointed to Texas’s financial accountability rating system.

Morgan pointed to Florida and North Carolina as states to emulate.

“In Florida … they’ve paid close attention to having high expectations and high standards for all of their schools,” Morgan said. “Where you measure, it matters.”

North Carolina has an impressive use of technology and personalized learning, she said.

“The school became the center of the community,” Morgan said. “Parents could come into the school and use technology and had access immediately through a longitudinal data system that was connected to the teachers.”

Willis says Georgia needs to find what is working within the state before looking elsewhere.

“We’ve got some school systems that have 80 percent graduation rates and some that have 90 percent, so what’s working there, what can we take use,” she said.