Common Core debated at state school chief forum

by Clay Neely

The nine Republican candidates running for state school superintendent squared off for a debate Tuesday at the Newnan Carnegie Library.

The candidates for the forum sponsored by the Coweta Republican Party included Mary Kay Bacallao, Kira Willis, Sharyl Dawes, Mike Buck, Ashley Bell, Allen Fort, Nancy Jester, Fitz Johnson and Richard Woods.

The issue of Common Core was a hot topic of debate among the candidates, who had wide-ranging opinions.

Speaking in favor of Common Core was Kira Willis.

“As a teacher, I understand that we have students that are transient who come in from all parts of our nation and we need to be able to make their transition as seamless as possible,” Willis said. “Because our ITBS, ACT, SAT and international baccalaureate have all gone and aligned with Common Core and we say ‘no’ and we secede, then I believe we’re being irresponsible and aren’t doing what’s best for our kids.”

Sharyl Dawes disagreed. “I think the federal government has no place in our kids’ education whatsoever,” said Dawes. “No one wants nationalized education. There is no room for the federal government in Georgia for our children.”

“We owe it to our kids to stay the course,” said Buck. “We can’t have the third or fourth set of standards in a decade for our kids and our teachers.”

“I’m not for Common Core,” said Bell. “As a county commissioner, I was presented with plenty of options to receive grants from the federal government but you and I know that the federal government sometimes comes with strings and oftentimes it comes with chains. It’s going to be hard to get rid of Common Core. As a parent, I don’t like it.”

“We can fix Common Core,” Fort said. “Every standard instrument is always an evolving, fluid instrument. We need to let teachers have the final say in what’s happening in our classrooms.”

“Common Core is central planning,” Jester said. “Ask the Soviets how that worked out for them. It’s not a good idea, it’s not a conservative idea and it’s not a Republican idea. Seventeen states have discussed or pulled out of the assessment for Common Core. It comes to us from the bureaucrats. We need leadership at the top that listens to parents and taxpayers by setting strong standards and civics as well.”

“I am for strong standards set by folks here in Georgia. Educators, parents, leaders – they need to set the standards,” said Johnson. “We should be able to compare how we are doing to our neighbors. Maintaining these high standards ensure that our students are work and college ready when they graduate.”

“I opposed Common Core in 2010,” said Woods. “We need to continue the review process and prepare them for life. That will be an ongoing process no matter what standards we have.”

“I traveled to Vermont where I met the lead author of the Common Core math standards, Jason Zimba,” said Bacallao. “He has less experience in math education than I do, so I can confront these issues with knowledge. I can fix the math problem.”

The next question posed to the candidates was, “Who should have primary responsibility for education in Georgia, parents or the state?”

“The Republican party and the PTA don’t often have the same beliefs,” said Dawes, “but they agree on local control. The closer to home the decisions are made, the better it is for your students. We need to teach job skills. Your local superintendent is going to know better what kind of skills are needed in your area.”

Parents should have ultimate authority over whether kids go to school, what kind of school they go to and what kind of education they receive, according to Buck. “However, we need rigorous standards in place. You can’t have 180 districts doing their own thing.”

Bell believes the most important aspect in a child’s development is their home life, citing the need for volunteers to help fill in the gaps of the possible lack of parental involvement.

“Some homes aren’t the most ideal home for a child to succeed. When a child comes from a home that may not be the best, you need to be able to accommodate for that,” Bell said. Parents need to take responsibility for their children, but when the gap is there, business leaders and volunteers need to fill that gap. Not government.”

“The issue is not about the parents but the fact the educational system is becoming the parent,” Fort said. “For many students, the teacher may be the most knowledgeable, caring and compassionate adult that a student may know. The education system needs to encourage parental involvement in a positive way.”

Parents are the arbiter for what works, according to Jester. “We need more things that allow parents to have choices and opportunities and upgrading funding so that it’s more portable for the student so they can go to the school that works best for them.”

“We have an eight-track system in an iPod world,” Jester said. “We need that customization for the individual child.”

Johnson feels that parents should have the ultimate responsibility and control for their children’s education. “Business, military or school? Push it down to the lowest level. Let them come up with solutions that are tailor-made for them. We have to come up with plans to keep parents involved.”

“Getting books in the hands of our parents is critical. Business partnerships so that we can offer diversity to our students,” Woods said. “We need to personalize not standardize education. Give them a variety of courses so they can have their uniqueness expressed.”

“Parents are number one,” said Bacallao. “As a teacher, I sought them out. Every single decision I made as a school board member was based on what the parents wanted. I didn’t make any decision unless I knew that’s what the parents wanted.”

While the debate was not contentious, one issue that every candidate agreed upon was that the state Board of Education should be subject to local elections by congressional district rather than being appointed by the governor.

Coweta GOP chair Brant Frost felt the debate was a success. “By organizing events and forums like this, the Coweta GOP seeks to provide voters with more access, more information, and more opportunities to interact with the Republican candidates for state School Superintendent,” he said.

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