9 Questions for Georgia’s State School Superintendent Candidates

Otha Thornton (D)

Democrat Otha Thornton served more than two decades in the U.S. Army, where his assignments included the White House Communications Agency and U.S. Forces-Iraq in Baghdad. He’s worked as an advocate on educational issues and is a past president of the National Parent Teacher Association. This would be his first elected office.

1. Like most elected officials, education superintendents can bring their own projects or initiatives to the job. What would you do that’s outside the formal job description?

I would like to inspire Georgia students to think and compete globally by bringing a strong business alliance and programs to teach entrepreneurship in our Georgia schools. This program would include partnering with the many colleges, including technical colleges as well as universities throughout Georgia to expose students to technological advances and economic growth models that would enable them to develop a small business strategy. I plan on establishing a grassroots advisory group that will proactively address our current challenges in schools and move toward evidence-based solutions and solid education laws.

2. Most professionals can expect to get their work equipment for free, whereas teachers routinely pay their own money to equip their classrooms. What do you say to teachers who say they need a bigger budget to run their classes? How can you support taking the burden of paying for classroom equipment off of teachers?

I agree that teachers and our schools need a larger budget to meet 2018 and beyond classroom needs. Georgia has shortchanged our children, educators, and support staff by over 9 billion dollars due to failing to fully fund our schools [through QBE]. Every election year, our state government can find a pay raise or additional monies for education but deprives our school systems between election years. I will take an active role in demanding additional funding to reduce and eliminate these costs for teachers. In addition, I would work with Georgia lawmakers to explore ways to offer some type of incentive or state tax break for teachers who use their funds to purchase classroom supplies and materials.

3. A lot of education questions are about funding. But it’s not a school superintendent who raises and spends money, it’s federal, state, and local bodies. How would you influence spending from outside Congress, the state Legislature, the school board millage rate hearing? What’s your strategy?

My plan and strategy are to build a robust business and community alliance. I have experience with the Fort Meade Alliance in Maryland, where we built a public-private partnership of over 1,000 businesses that “adopted” the Anne Arundel County School District and provided resources above and beyond. This school district is flourishing today after over a decade of establishing and sustaining this model.

4. Some Georgia schools serve a high proportion of students who are hindered by circumstances outside of school walls: maybe they’re homeless, or miss meals because of poverty, or have no internet access. Maybe they have no mental or physical health care. What can or should the next school superintendent do to help students succeed despite things that happen outside the classroom?

To help students succeed in Georgia, I will work collaboratively with all stakeholders in getting our QBE formula [the Quality Basic Education Act of 1985, an education reform act that is still used today] updated so we can provide necessary wraparound services in all of our public schools. These services will be critical in identifying social, emotional, and medical needs which will set our children and school districts up for success and mitigate some of our discipline and safety challenges.

As I talk to citizens around Georgia, I tell them that our 1.8 million children in public schools in Georgia do not have a Democratic or Republican tag behind their name. I would leverage my position by proactively collaborating with the executive and legislative branches, and all stakeholders in updating the QBE formula that would take into account current education costs, school districts’ economic tax bases, and needs assessments.

Additionally, I will reach out to every state-level agency leader and establish regular communications with them to explore options in addressing equity and poverty. As the 53rd national PTA president and chairman of the board, former White House communications agency personnel director, and former chief of personnel operations in combat for all military forces in the country, we utilized the critical path management approach. This approach ensured every stakeholder was heard and integrated into the decision-making process.

One of my favorite quotes is, “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.” As leaders, we have to be intentional on leveraging our positions in addressing the equity and poverty issue by understanding our state and national history and the structural and systematic policies and laws that are in place that create inequity. I have already begun developing relationships with our key nominees. Two particular ones are with the labor and agriculture commissioners, to explore how we can leverage resources to rural and urban communities in Georgia.

With the labor commissioner, we are discussing workforce development between the labor and education departments. With the agriculture commissioner, we are discussing how we can leverage the agribusiness industry better bringing resources and training into our rural communities since agriculture is the largest economic generator in Georgia. I am willing to work across party lines for the best outcomes.

I will work with superintendents and their communities to setup a wraparound approach to address the nonacademic needs of children in Georgia. For children to be academically successful, we must address the whole child. Children who are homeless, hungry, or who have medical or physical needs are not going to be able to do their best unless these needs are addressed. I believe the school systems are in the best position to guide and to direct this approach. As state school superintendent, I would use my influence to work with local education agencies and their communities to set up local approaches for wraparound services.

5. While tests can be a good way to measure what students know and how teachers teach, using test results alone can shortchange both. Georgia’s made moves to reduce the number of high-stakes tests. What’s the proper role for it in Georgia schools and what will you to make any changes you think are necessary?

I am against high-stakes testing. When a school system focuses on testing, its focus moves from educating a student’s mind to training a student’s mind. A true education should focus on character, critical thinking, creativity, and compassion. We should strive to eliminate unnecessary testing and focus on assessments. I understand it is important to know if students are learning what is being taught. This is critical because we want a citizenry that is productive and can contribute to our state, nation, and international economies.

With that said, everyone is not good at taking tests and in some cases, testing causes great anxiety and prevents individuals from demonstrating their actual knowledge and understanding of the tested content. I would begin to examine alternative approaches to paper-and-pencil tests known as high-stakes testing. I would raise the question regarding what other standard methods can we employ in Georgia to assess what a student has learned.

6. Rural schools struggle to attract teachers, especially since urban and suburban districts pay more. How do you get teachers into rural classrooms, including those with qualifications to teach things like special education, computer programming, or other specialties?

My role would be to work with legislators and the governor in getting legislation passed to offer statewide incentives and programs, such as student loan forgiveness, home ownership, housing subsidy, and better compensation packages.

On the student loan forgiveness program, I would advocate for a five-year program that paid back twenty percent per year coupled with a requirement that teachers in this program would have an assigned mentor teacher. For two years, I took part as a judge in the National Teacher of the Year Program, and I had many conversations with [teachers about] the importance of the three- to five-year mark in their career.

The home ownership program would provide incentives for teachers to purchase homes with no down payments, which could be financed at local banks in the community. In addition, I would develop stakeholder advisory groups to stay in touch with the needs and issues related to these groups. It is important to establish advisory groups with superintendents, teachers, parents, students, and the business community. I believe the business of education is everybody’s business, and everybody should have a role in supporting the educational welfare of all of students in Georgia.

7. We all know that there are other ways to a good living besides a four-year college degree. Or do we? Do Georgia schools do a good enough job of offering and marketing vocational and career classes and apprenticeships? Or does Georgia need to make changes?

Our Georgia schools need more support in this area. We must create multiple pathways, so all students are given the opportunities and resources to be successful in life. I would take full responsibility to ensure our high school graduates are college, technical school, and/or career ready. I fully support and would aggressively push vocational education and apprenticeship programs. I have seen some great apprenticeship programs in Georgia, to include the Golden Isles College and Career Academy in Glynn County and the Coweta County/German Apprenticeship program.

These are the type of programs that I would work to find resources to replicate in other school districts around Georgia. I would work with the certification body of these pathways, so students could be certified upon the completion of their pathway (for example, students completing an automotive pathway could be certified as an automotive mechanic, and this student would be ready to go to work immediately). I also understand some of the challenges with pathways in recruiting individuals who are working or who have worked in that pathways and not someone who has not. I would work with these vocational businesses to support this effort.

8. Teachers can carry guns in classrooms if their city or county school board decides to authorize that. Do you agree with this policy? Or should there be some other policy on teachers and guns?

I do not agree with this policy. Instead of arming teachers with guns, I believe we should arm teachers with all the tools they need to teach our children. We should have a laser focus on providing resources for children at all ability levels that walk through the door of any public school in Georgia.

I would start by requesting a needs assessment from each superintendent and their school board, prioritize the needs, and begin advocating for them with all government and corporate stakeholders. The state government’s role is to set the conditions and to provide resources and leadership to all of its school districts. One size does not fit all in every school district and their communities, so my role would be to seek all state and federal resources available to assist each district according to their needs.

9. What are the biggest issues that the education superintendent will need to face in the next four years?

1. A high-quality and equitable seat for every child in Georgia.

2. Intervention and wraparound services tailored to meet the needs of individual schools and districts.

3. Clear post-secondary pathways for every student, so they are prepared to be successful in life.

To create a world-class K-12 school system in Georgia that encourages and produces character, critical thinking skills, creativity, and compassion in our students’ educational experience. To reinvigorate arts, science, and vocational training in our schools. To ensure that our school districts are properly funded and resourced, and to provide a great education for every child whether they are in rural, urban, or suburban Georgia.

My vision has three major pillars: wraparound services (focusing on the whole child), school safety, and funding. I will collaboratively work with all stakeholders in getting our QBE formula updated so we can provide necessary wraparound services in our schools. These services will be critical in identifying social, mental, and medical needs which will set our children and school districts up for success and mitigate some of our discipline and safety challenges. Secondly, [to provide] leadership, guidance, and resources on addressing school safety, I will work closely with superintendents and stakeholders in finding tailored resources. Finally, I will address and advocate for the right funding, not adequate funding. I will ensure Title I funds are being used correctly by our state and collaborate with businesses in Georgia, and those businesses seeking a home in Georgia, to invest in our public schools.

I was a key leader with the Anne Arundel County Public School District near Fort Meade, Maryland, over a decade ago on a “Creating High-Performing High Schools” task force committee. The vision of the school leaders, community, and this committee created one of the top school districts in America, and after over a decade of operation, today it is a great workforce development and academic model to emulate. The end state of my vision is that every child who graduates from a Georgia high school has an education that gives them viable life options and a promising future.