About 100 people attended the forum at the Cherokee County Conference Center presented by the Cherokee County Republican Party and moderated by its president, Rick Davies.
Eight of the nine qualified Republican state superintendent candidates participated in the forum, with Ashley Ball absent because he had strep throat, Davies said.
The candidates who participated in the forum were Kira Willis, Fitz Johnson, Sharyl Dawes, Allen Fort, Mike Buck, Nancy Jester, Richard Woods and Mary Kay Bacallao.
When asked about their thoughts on the Common Core Standards, the candidates gave mixed reviews.
Willis, a Fulton County resident, teacher for 18 years and proponent for education freedom, said standards are important because they keep the educators responsible for teaching children.
Willis said standards are about “raising the bottom and pushing up the top,” and the Common Core Standards can be used to do that. She added that changing standards on teachers is “irresponsible and ill-advised.”
Johnson, a 21-year retired U.S. Army veteran, said standards need to be put in place by educators, communities and individuals.
He said local boards should be allowed to be innovative but said standards are important — especially for military families with children who move around from state to state.
Dawes, who said she has been involved in the Republican Party for 18 years, said Georgia needs standards as well as local control. She said the education system needs to find a set of standards that are “palatable” for parents and voters, and schools don’t need any more testing.
Fort, with 38 years in public education and experience in the Department of Education, said changes should be made through yearly reviews, but the “Common Core state standards are what we have.”
“They’re not going away tomorrow, whether you love them or hate them or anything in-between,” Fort said. “Every one of these standards is fluid, it’s not etched in stone.”
Buck, who has 31 years in public education and experience at the Department of Education, said the Common Core Standards are not perfect, but he “strongly supports the standards we currently have.”
“At the end of the day, my opinion is not the most important,” Buck said. “Over 11,000 teachers responded (to a survey), and 70 to 75 percent of our teachers are in favor, or strongly in favor, of the standards we are teaching.”
Jester, who advocates for choice, fiscal responsibility and local control, said “Common Core is just a bad idea.” She said children are being taught “social movement theory, and it’s a problem.”
Woods, a teacher, said to “improve education, we have to control education,” and that the state should begin by following the Constitution.
Bacallao, a professor and parent, said she had the answer to Common Core. Her answer is to change testing so that teachers can be “free to meet the needs of their students.” She said tests and standards are too grade specific and is against Common Core.
When asked what each the No. 1 challenge facing education, many candidates pointed to graduation rates.
Johnson, Fort and Buck agreed the state’s average graduation rate is the No. 1 challenge facing Georgia.
Johnson said students need to be prepared to enter the workforce or go to college or technical school straight from high school.
“When you keep a child’s interest, you keep a child in school,” he said.
Ford said looking at graduation rates “on the back end” doesn’t solve anything, and students need to be taught well starting in kindergarten in order to raise the graduation rate in the future.
He said if students are always prepared for the next grade, when they get to their senior year, graduation won’t be a concern because “we took care of them, K through 11.”
Buck said two issues contribute to the lack of graduation.
“We have got to work on setting up a system where we continue to attract the best and brightest to the field,” he said. “We have got to stop treating our educators like second-class citizens.”
The second issue, Buck said, is students aren’t shown the relevance of what they are learning.
Willis said the graduation rate isn’t the problem, it’s state’s different numeric passing level. She said many states with higher graduation rates, using the same formula as Georgia, also have lower numeric passing rates.
“If we aligned ourselves with the other states, we would see an immediate and valid jump in graduation rates. We would also see an immediate and valid drop in cost-per-pupil expenditures,” she said.
Dawes said budget cuts and funding, and student-teacher language barriers to student learning, are the two biggest problems facing education.
Jester said the Department of Education is not doing its job and is not being financially responsible with taxpayer money.
Woods said literacy “opens the doors of opportunity” for students. He said, as a teacher, he’s observed that his students know the facts and material, but if they can’t read they won’t pass tests because every subject test requires the ability to read and comprehend.
Bacallao said Common Core, fiscal responsibility and respect between students, teachers and parents, are some of the big problems facing Georgia education.
When it came to the issue of school choice, all candidates stressed the importance of school options for parents and students.
Fort’s children attended public schools, he said, because public schools also offer social and personal skills that can be used throughout life. But Fort said he’s taught private school before, and believes all school choices are important.
Fort said public education is “the heart and soul” of every state.
Buck said he “absolutely” agreed with Fort, and his children attend public school. Buck said he believes three “great entities can change the world, the home, the church and the schools.”
Jester said her children go to public school, but she believes public schools should have to “compete for business.” She said parents should be able to choose what’s best for their children and all schools are important.
Woods said he doesn’t have children, but his students become his children “when they walk into the classroom.”
“If I did have a child, I’d send them to the school that was best for them,” he said. “The parents always want the best.”
Bacallao said her children were briefly homeschooled and attended public schools. She said parents should be able to make the best choice for their children.
Willis said her children were in public schools, but said that may not always be the best option for them and said she wants the choice to select schools that will be best for her individual children.
“I want to ensure parents in Georgia are able to do what’s best by their children,” she said.
Johnson said his children are in public schools, but one went to private school for a couple years. He said choice has been important when it came to his children’s education, and he believes every parent should have the choice to do the best thing for their children.
“I was glad to have a choice, and I believe parents should have a choice,” he said.
Similarly, Dawes said her children went to public school, but had a brief stint in private school while the family moved.
“I’m all about choice,” he said.
Dawes said she wants parents and students to have more education choice, and zip codes really limit the ability for students to attend the schools that are best for them.
“It’d be nice to see more choices and competition in schools,” she said.
Jason Halliburton represented Ball at the forum, and explained he sat on a charter school board and was a “constitutional conservative.”
“He’s a freedom-loving American who believes bigger government means less freedom,” Halliburton said of Ball.
A video of the forum can be viewed online at www.georgiapolitics.org/videos.html.