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No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top Targeted by Ga. Superintendent Hopefuls

Atlanta

Federal education law and competitive-grant initiatives from Washington are catching quite a bit of heat from the two candidates seeking to be Georgia's next schools chief.

The reasons why Democrat Valarie Wilson and Republican Richard Woods are hitting the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top grants are significantly different. But in several ways they reflect the national dialogue about state control over education, K-12 accountability at several levels, and the Common Core State Standards. The extent to which their positions on national policy can ultimately influence where the state goes is up for debate. But neither is shy about calling those federal policies harmful in many respects for schools. 

Despite Republican dominance in Georgia, Wilson and Woods are in a close contest, according to recent polling. And on one hot topic, testing, they sometimes hit the same notes.

Unhappy Wedding

Wilson is the former head of both the Georgia School Boards Association and the school board of the Decatur city district. She's not shy about sharply criticizing the so-called reform community, and in the Democratic primary she beat state Rep. Alisha Morgan, who had the backing of groups like StudentsFirst and was a vigorous advocate for school choice. Wilson told me in an interview that, contrary to what the "reform world" says, "Our public school system is not failing."

Wilson said she's a supporter of the common core and stresses how teachers are generally eager to use the standards. But the fact that the standards became "married" to new teacher-evaluation requirements in Race to the Top that call for the use of test scores, even as professional development for teachers has stagnated and educators feel overwhelmed by the quantity of tests, have hampered schools' ability to implement the standards, she said. (She pledged to do an inventory of the tests Peach State students take, but didn't say which tests or how many she planned to eliminate.)

And No Child Left Behind, with its stress on testing and adequate yearly progress, began pushing schools down the "very slippery slope" that led to many of the woes public schools face, Wilson said.

"All of those things were coming down, and there was no funding to come along with it," Wilson told me, citing the furlough days Georgia schools have taken in recent years. Remember, Georgia's work on its Race to the Top grant has run into serious problems, as my colleague Alyson Klein reported in June.

A better Race to the Top system, she said, would directly reward districts that show innovative approaches for improving their schools without attaching onerous policy strings. Wilson said those approaches aren't always beloved, highlighting her push while on the Decatur board to close two elementary schools and replace one of them with the city's Early Childhood Learning Center. The center got a visit from President Barack Obama last year when his administration's push for expanding early education was getting a lot of attention:

'Personalize, Not Standardize'

Like Wilson, Woods has worked with public schools for some time—he has both classroom and administrative experience in Georgia schools. As part of an antidote to what he called the "straitjacket" of NCLB, Woods said that schools must diversify their course offerings and stress online learning in order to reach more students.

"We must personalize, not standardize, our children's education," Woods told a forum hosted by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a non-union group, on Sept. 15.

Showing that concern about how testing is used in school accountability is a bipartisan issue, Woods has called for a two-year moratorium on the use of certain Georgia tests in teacher evaluations. His website stresses that states are driving the national conversation about this issue and that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is only just catching up, not the other way around.

"When you try to attach teacher evaluations to one end-of-year test, you are not looking at their class size" or the types of students in teachers' classrooms, Woods told the PAGE forum, hitting on a theme that many Republicans would not.

But in one key respect, Woods reflects the opinion of many in the Republican Party: He's against the common core. He's concerned that the state's Race to the Top grant played an inappropriate role in the state school board's 2010 decision to adopt the standards. Woods also stressed that the state's move to adopt common core was largely unnecessary and redundant, repeating the findings of a Georgia Senate research office report published last year that 90 percent of the state's prior standards, the Georgia Performance Standards, overlapped with the common core. 

"Are all the standards bad? No. Are all the standards good? No," he said, explaining his view that the standards need to be reviewed although not necessarily thrown out altogether. (Read the Georgia Senate report from 2013 below.)

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