Sparks fly in state school superintendent candidate debate in clashes over past governance

Left, State School Superintendent Richard Woods, right, Democratic candidate Alisha Thomas-Searcy. The two made their cases for why they should lead Georgia’s public schools in a debate Oct. 17. Ross Williams/Georgia RecorderLeft, State School Superintendent Richard Woods, right, Democratic candidate Alisha Thomas-Searcy. The two made their cases for why they should lead Georgia’s public schools in a debate Oct. 17. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
October 17, 2022

The two candidates hoping to head Georgia’s public schools traded barbs on the debate stage Monday, each accusing the other of not doing enough to help the state’s 1.8 million public school students.

“As a member of the General Assembly, you did not issue or try to attempt to pass any bill or put forward any bill that addressed school safety, raising teacher pay or teacher recruitment, and my question would be why?” asked Republican incumbent Richard Woods of his Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Alisha Thomas Searcy.

The two verbally sparred at Georgia Public Broadcasting studios as part of the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.

After leaving the Legislature, Thomas served as superintendent of schools at Ivy Preparatory Academies, an all-girls charter school in Atlanta. Woods, a former teacher and administrator, was elected in 2014.

“Mr. Superintendent, I was in the legislature from 2003 until 2014. That was eight years ago,” she shot back. “And that’s a great example of how out of touch you are in terms of what’s happening today. I’m running for State School Superintendent today because over the last eight years, those issues haven’t been addressed. Over the last 10 years, teachers have been burned out.”

Searcy said during her time at Ivy Preparatory, she raised teacher retention from 25% to 75%, closed the achievement gap and raised the College and Career Performance Index, and she said she will deliver the same success for Georgia if elected.

But her support for charter schools has earned her some skepticism from fellow Democrats. Searcy dismissed the effect that could have on the race.

“I won all 159 counties in my Democratic primary, and so I think it’s important to note that I have a lot of support from my party, and I’m proud to have that,” she said. “But more important than that, I’m running for state school superintendent because I want to represent all of the children of Georgia, and I believe it’s part of the problem that we spend time talking about politics and not what’s best for children. I’m a proud supporter of public school choice as a parent of three school-aged children. I know more than anyone else what’s best for my children, and I believe that parents should have that option.”

Searcy said it is Woods who should be called a do-nothing.

“What we did in the Legislature was create the framework, and it was up to the Department of Education to actually create the evaluation system,” she said. “And so if you find so many problems with the teacher evaluation system, why haven’t you done anything to make any of those changes that you talk about now, in the last eight years that you’ve been in office?”

“Actually, I have done something over the past eight years,” Woods said. “Initially, when I came into office, I worked with Sen. (Lindsey) Tippins, and we worked to repeal many of the things that you helped put in place.”

“What you saw was we had the largest reduction of state mandated testing,” Woods added. “And within that bill itself, again, my opponent helped to set up a situation in which we were going to test every single child and every single course with something called student learning objectives. Also in that framework, we had each teacher, no matter what their years of experience, or what their experience was, they were going to have to undergo six mandated observations throughout the year. And I can tell you, as an administrator, and especially as the only person who has been a teacher on this stage, that was a complete waste of time.”

Woods criticized Searcy for a lack of classroom experience, and in a discussion about school safety, Searcy hit back at Woods for not having children.

“My child is not living in a fantasy world, she goes to school every day,” she said. “And I know you may not have children, so you don’t understand that experience, but please do not discount the experience my daughter is having.”

“I never said I had children or didn’t have children, so again, that’s an assumption that you were basing on some misinformation,” Woods said. “But I will say that the children I have had have been the 1.8 million children in the state of Georgia, and each and every day, their safety is first and foremost.”

Searcy also pressed Woods on the so-called divisive concepts legislation signed by Gov. Brian Kemp this summer. Under the law, teachers are banned from discussing nine concepts, including the idea that the United States is “fundamentally racist,” that anyone should feel guilt because of his or her race or that anyone bears guilt for actions done by members of their race in the past.

In 2021, The Georgia Board of Education passed a resolution affirming the United States is not racist and that public school students should only be taught that slavery and racism are betrayals of the country’s founding principles.

Critics call the conservative focus on “critical race theory,” which has not been taught in Georgia K-12 classrooms, an attempt to pander to hard-right voters at students’ expense.

“Teachers in our state are frustrated, they feel unheard and unseen,” Searcy said. “And the last thing they needed was a policy passed by the state superintendent and now a law passed in the Legislature that further demonizes, disrespects teachers, and ties their hand from teaching the very things that they’ve been trained to do.”

Woods said Searcy is misrepresenting the law.

“We do not shy away from controversial topics, if you look at our standards, we do talk about the middle passage, slavery at various times in U.S. history and around the world, thinking about the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, segregation, these are all things we do not shy away from,” he said.

The full debate is available as a video via Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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