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Posted: October 27, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Superintendent must champion public education

In my house, the contest for state school superintendent is as important as the governor’s race. I have a son, son-in-law and now a grandson who are public schoolteachers and they, and all teachers, deserve a draw-a-line-in-the-sand advocate.

Teachers don’t need another bureaucratic initiative from people who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in several light years. They need a champion; someone who will stand up for them and mean it.

That should be Job One for the state school superintendent.

I have watched with increasing frustration as the Georgia Legislature has deemed the best solution to the problems of public education is to simply allow parents to walk away from the problem with vouchers and the abominable GOAL program, which allows tax credit up to $2,500 for scholarships for public schoolchildren wanting to attend private schools. The cost of this program is $50 million for a state that can’t afford it.

Of course, this is the same Legislature that found time in its busy schedule last session to take on the critically-important issue of ensuring that we would not have our body parts microchipped without permission. I assume this effort was intended to keep snoopy extra-terrestrials from knowing who was doing what in Porterdale.

To their credit, there has been no talk of an invasion from Mars since the microchip issue was first discussed in the General Assembly. That is why their views on education are so important to me.

Public education in Georgia has been lacking an effective leader for years. Former Superintendent Linda Schrenko is in jail for fraud and money laundering and her successor, Kathy Cox, who had little clout with the Legislature, has gone to Washington to run some educational think tank rather than run for re-election.

The Republican candidate for education’s top job is Dr. John Barge, the director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction with the Bartow County School System. (My son teaches in the Bartow County System but I do not know Dr. Barge personally.) Joe Martin, of Atlanta, executive director of the Georgia School Funding Association, is running as a Democrat. Martin narrowly missed being elected to the post in 1998 when Schrenko won re-election. Kira Willis, the Libertarian candidate, is a public school teacher in Fulton County.

Martin says he is unalterably opposed to private vouchers and the GOAL program. In response to a questionnaire from major educational organizations in Georgia, Martin said, "Not only am I adamantly opposed to any form of voucher, I also consider the current law on tuition-tax credits to be both unconstitutional and unfair because the benefits go to only some students."

Martin adds, "In any event, whenever public funds are used to support a private school, any school receiving public support must be held accountable for the responsible use of those funds. Parental choice by itself is not a sufficient measure of accountability."

The question becomes whether he could convince the GOP majority in the Legislature of that obvious fact.

John Barge, the Republican, sounds lukewarm on vouchers, saying they are not the "silver bullet" they are touted to be. Barge points out that private schools can choose their students, their curriculum and their means of discipline, none of which are available to public schools. Barge says, and I agree, that this is an unlevel playing field and unfair to public school teachers.

Barge says he wants to "repair" relationships with the Legislature and establish better communications.

"We are currently in a situation where the politicians are telling the professionals what to do," he says. "That is very frustrating for teachers."

Libertarian Kira Willis tells me she supports GOAL but not school vouchers and wants to open up schools to the "principles of the free market." (Does that mean teachers are free to reject students they don’t want?) She seems like a nice person who has no strong base of support and would be eaten alive by the Legislature.

Whoever we choose for the job in November, let’s hope they can get politicians out of public education, bureaucracy out of the Department of Education, and will become an articulate and high-profile spokesperson for our public schools in Georgia.

More than fancy-sounding programs replete with acronyms and Central Office posters and meddlesome politicians, teachers need a no-nonsense, quit-screwing-around-with-public-education-or-else champion. So do we all.

Hopefully, that will be our next state school superintendent. Stay tuned.

Reach Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.

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