9 Questions for Georgia’s State School Superintendent Candidates

Richard Woods (R)

Richard Woods Georgia State School Superintendant Candidate Election 2018
Richard Woods

Photograph courtesy of Richard Woods Campaign

Republican Richard Woods was elected Georgia’s school superintendent in 2014. Before that, he spent 25 years in pre-K through 12th grade education as a teacher, department chair, and teacher mentor and administrator. He grew up in a military family, but has long called Tifton home.  

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?

State school superintendents before me have had the tendency to overly focus on just a narrow set of projects and initiatives to the detriment of the rest of the education system. From the onset, I set out to craft a comprehensive vision for our education system because I know that students, parents, and educators interact and rely on the entire system, not just certain parts.

Since taking office, I have worked to transform the Georgia Department of Education into a truly service- and support-centered agency, fostering collaboration, pursuing alignment, and ensuring cohesiveness. We believe our schools and students can succeed. Our focus has been to remove barriers to success, foster collaboration, more effectively target resources, restore and grow partnerships, and lead by meeting the needs of those we serve.

We’ve focused on the fundamentals in the early grades by building out strong instruction supports and scaling best practices instead of over-emphasizing accountability. For example, we were awarded over $61 million to support literacy; partnered with Get Georgia Reading and the Georgia Public Library Service and put over 300,000 books directly into the hands of our kids; and built out developmentally appropriate and formative literacy and numeracy tools for teachers. In the later grades, we are positioning pathways around the passions and interests of our students; this has led to thousands of students completing career pathways and participating in dual enrollment or earning credit through AP.

Instead of overemphasizing English language arts and math to the detriment of other disciplines, I have ensured that support, professional learning, and opportunity have expanded across all areas, including social studies, science, fine arts, world language, career tech, computer science, and physical education. A renaissance of opportunity is taking place in our schools with options coming back that were reduced or eliminated altogether during the No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top years.

We have over 1,000 schools that are in the STEM pipeline and students who complete career pathways achieve a 96 percent graduation rate. Our state is ranked 15th in the nation for AP, and we have worked to create STEAM and economic development partnership designations for our districts and schools. We have expanded opportunities by establishing diploma seals in the areas of fine arts, international skills, employability skills, leadership skills, and career readiness for our high school students.

If afforded a second term, I will continue to fight for a more balanced education system that meets the needs of the whole child by strengthening support across disciplines, protecting education funding, working with the General Assembly to adopt a 21st-Century education formula, raising teacher pay, increasing student outcomes, and expanding opportunities.

Throughout my tenure, I have worked with students, parents, educators, and communities to lay out a positive vision for education in our state—a vision molded by Georgians, not rooted in the requirements of No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. We are charting our own course in education and yielding results because of the level of engagement, collaboration, and buy-in from all Georgians.

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?

As the only candidate for this office who has K-12 classroom experience, I understand firsthand what it is like to teach in crowded classrooms and routinely pay out of my own pocket for supplies and equipment for students. It speaks volumes to the level of dedication our teachers have for meeting the needs of their students when it is such a universal truth that teachers dip into their own pockets to support their students. I am personally committed to ensuring we realize a new universal truth—that our teachers are professionals and deserve to be equipped with the tools to support their talents and to meet the needs of their students.

To achieve this, I will be working with the legislature to bring back the tax-free holiday for back-to-school supplies, clothing, and equipment. Not only will this benefit Georgia families but educators too. I believe that the state should increase the standard tax deduction for teachers with an amount that’s more in line with how much teachers actually spend on supplies for their classrooms.

I have committed to working with the new governor to finally update our education funding formula. We have a 1985 formula [the Quality Basic Education Act of 1985, an education reform act that is still used today] while we expect our children to have a 21st-Century education. Updating the formula will help address teachers having to dip into their own pockets to fund basic classroom needs.

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?

As Georgia’s only official who is elected solely on education issues, I believe the state school superintendent brings a critical perspective and represents the voices of students, parents, and educators. The state school superintendent should not only be an advocate, but also should be one to set priorities, outline solutions, and propose an inclusive decision-making process that includes the voices of all Georgians.

We must acknowledge that we are working with a funding formula that was based on the cost of a 1985 education. Our kids deserve a 21st-Century education with a formula that reflects that. The money we get now should be the foundation of this formula—not used as a means to cap funding. Not only do I think we need a formula that is in line with inflation, but also one that is in line with the growing expectations of our education system. We have a constitutional and moral obligation to get this done.

During the development of the state’s ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] plan, I brought together parents, educators, students, business leaders, and policymakers to have an open and transparent dialogue about the future of education in Georgia. In the end, we put together a strong plan that recognizes and respects the input of thousands of Georgians. I would push for a similar process to update our QBE funding formula. The drivers must be: What do we expect from our education system? How much will it cost and what will our priorities be? What’s best for our kids?

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?

Having lived and taught in southwest Georgia, I understand firsthand the impact poverty has on our schools and the barriers it has for students. We must not overlook that poverty in Georgia is very different from one region to another; rural poverty has different needs and challenges than urban poverty. We cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach.

We need a 21st-Century education funding formula that recognizes these truths. We must address rising transportation costs, particularly for our rural districts. I have spearheaded efforts to provide flexibility to districts to leverage federal funds more effectively and allow them to spend funds addressing nonacademic needs, such as funding counselors, mental health services, social workers, and parent and community engagement coordinators. I have worked to provide over $1 million to fund wraparound coordinator positions across the state to work with schools to establish student success (wraparound) centers. I have also secured millions to expand mental health services and school climate [quality of life at school] support.

Beyond coordinating with sister education agencies, I have worked with other state agencies to leverage their resources to support our communities. Working with the Department of Community Health, we will be doubling our funding for school nurses statewide and we are working with the Georgia Public Library System to provide library cards to every child in Georgia.

At the state level, we’ve adopted a common framework for improvement with the whole child at its center, because I believe that should be the focus of our work. Our school improvement approach is, “All districts, all schools, all students—all hands on deck!” I am seeing the transformation of our agency into one that expands opportunities for all students, provides tiered and tailored supports to schools, engages communities in a meaningful way, and empowers districts to truly meet the needs of each child.

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 testing in Georgia schools and what will you do to make any changes you think are necessary?

In assessment, I have led the charge for the largest decrease in high-stakes testing in Georgia’s history. Working with teachers, parents, and students, we’ve seen the state requirement for student learning objectives eliminated and the elimination of eight milestones assessments. I have continued to seek out ways to reduce high-stakes testing in state board rule, recommending and getting the approval to eliminate double-testing for high school and middle school students who take advance coursework or participate in dual enrollment. This past session, I worked with the General Assembly to pass legislation to establish an Innovative Assessment Pilot, which will provide us a path to create assessments that are less intrusive, provide more immediate feedback, and are rooted in instruction, rather than accountability.

This is more than just a concept, but a real alternative that has been developed. Recently, the Georgia Department of Education launched optional, formative assessments for grades 1 and 2 to measure literacy and numeracy skills. We’ve created a series of age and developmentally-appropriate games that are interactive and engaging for students, provide feedback in real time, and eliminate a high-pressure environment. I also stood up against efforts by the governor and State Board of Education to make K-2 assessments mandated and high-stakes. I will continue to fight back against these efforts.

In my second term, I will commit to pursuing the further reduction of the number of high-stakes tests to bring us in line with the federal minimum; supporting district innovation and flexibility in testing, developing, and delivering diagnostic tools for educators; and creating an assessment system that truly informs teaching and learning.

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?

I am the only candidate running for this office who has K-12 classroom experience, and that experience was in rural south Georgia. My opponent lacks the firsthand experience of working in crowded classrooms, seeing the negative impacts of high-stakes testing, teaching in a Title I school, or the challenges of rural education—I have that experience.

I have over 25 years of pre-K through 12th-grade experience in education serving as a veteran teacher, school leader, and Georgia’s current state school superintendent. Throughout my educational career, I have never forgotten what it’s like to be a classroom teacher. I carry that commitment and experience with me every day as Georgia’s school superintendent. I make every decision through the lens of an educator.

Higher education, the Professional Standards Commission, teacher groups, districts, and others play a key role in the teacher pipeline. When I took office, I sent a survey to Georgia’s educators asking them to rank the top reasons people were feeling the profession. Over 55,000 teachers responded, and those results formed the basis for the reduction of high-stakes tests, fewer observations for veteran or effective teachers, and reforms to the teacher evaluation system. We must continue to evaluate policy changes that unfairly pressure and punish our teachers.

Compensation must be a key component of our strategy to attract and retain our teachers. Teachers stayed committed to our state and to our students during the Great Recession—enduring furloughs, pay freezes, even cuts. We owe it to our teachers to give them true pay raises, not simply increase pay to have it eroded by higher retirement or health care contributions. We should increase the base starting salary for Georgia teachers and expand the salary scale steps past 21 years, which would specifically help rural districts who rely on state funding for almost all their teachers’ compensation. These changes would help recruit new teachers on the front end, while retaining our veteran teachers whose commitment to serving in our classrooms has been unwavering.

Under my leadership, the Georgia Department of Education is partnering with rural school districts and Wiregrass Technical College to pilot an effort in southwest Georgia to increase certified computer science educators and expand computer science opportunities. We are also working to strengthen higher education prep programs and grow-your-own efforts to increase the number of teacher candidates in high-needs areas like special education.

In addition to pay, benefits are also a key part of the recruitment of Georgia’s teacher workforce—and an essential element to keep them once they join our ranks. As the spouse of a TRS (Teachers Retirement System of Georgia) retiree who dedicated 30 years to educating our children and as a 25-year educator myself, I understand the importance of keeping our promise to our teachers. I will continue to be a strong advocate in this area, as well as continue to advocate for multiple options and competitive pricing for our healthcare.

Recruiting and retaining teachers for Georgia isn’t about glossy ads or billboards. Every teacher—including myself—was inspired by a teacher who impacted our life in a positive way. The best recruitment tool is to have teachers telling their students with teaching aptitude to pursue a career in the teaching profession. I have laid out a comprehensive framework to address compensation while promoting positive policies that will keep our best teachers in the classroom.

We’ve taken major steps to get there, but our state must step up in a bold way to see that we truly address this critical issue. I am committed to leading that charge for our teachers and offering clear solutions to pave the path forward.

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?

I have a very diverse educational background having attended vocational schools, universities, and worked at mills and factories. Many experiences and opportunities have guided me throughout my career.

I believe that individuals succeed when they can work in an area that they are passionate about and matches their interests—that’s the difference between a job and career. Under No Child Left Behind, I was a critic of our education system pushing every child to attend a four-year college.

As state school superintendent, I have shifted our system away from that overly narrow approach to one that prepares students for vocational schools, universities, the military, or to go straight into the workforce—getting them ready for life.

In the later grades, we are positioning pathways around the passions and interests of our students; this has led to thousands of students completing career pathways, participating in dual enrollment, earning industry credentials, participating in work-based learning and apprenticeships, or earning credit through AP.

We are partnering with businesses and industries like never before to align opportunities with state and regional needs as well as develop career pathways in high-demand fields such as cyber security, granite technology, computer science, logistics, and international skills.

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?

Each day we are entrusted with the safety of nearly 1.8 million students and hundreds of thousands of staff members. School safety is our major responsibility.

I worked closely with the General Assembly to get millions of dollars in school safety grants to provide facility upgrades, train school personnel, and enhance mental health services.

I supported legislation to expand mandatory safety drills to include active shooter and intruder drills. I also supported the creation of a School Safety Study Committee to establish a comprehensive approach to safety and security for our schools.

Under my direction, the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) is ensuring that emergency management and law enforcement agencies are working closely with their local school districts. We have partnered with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) to conduct a thorough review the safety plans of every school in our state. GaDOE has made school safety a key component of its facilities review and approval process at the state level. High-quality training is being developed and implemented for districts, leaders, educators, and support staff.

GaDOE is working with districts to improve the climate of their schools and to ensure that students feel empowered to communicate concerns and threats to school officials.

Each district and each school is unique—a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer. I am committed to raising awareness about this issue, providing a wide-range of solutions and options that ensures a comprehensive approach to this issue. We must empower and equip local communities, school boards, and leaders to assess and develop plans—with our role being to provide the resources and support to execute those plans effectively.

On the issue of school staff being armed, it is currently allowed in state law. I believe this should be a local decision and one that should involve public hearings, intense training, and a narrow focus on teachers who are military veterans, active servicemen, or have a law enforcement background. I would be in favor of amendments to the law outlining clear expectations for public input and staff training, as well as safeguards to ensure any districts that pursue this option do so in a responsible and responsive manner.

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

This election will see a new governor for our state, new members of the General Assembly, and new leadership on the Georgia Senate and House education committees. In this climate, it is critical that we have a state school superintendent who does more than point out challenges, but provides concrete solutions. I have built relationships with not only the legislature but with our students, parents, educators, business leaders, and community members. Throughout my tenure, I have sought out their voice, concerns, and input. I have created and strengthened advisory councils and have ensured these operate in a meaningful way to provide real feedback and input on our work.

Georgia is no longer dictated by a rigid federal law like No Child Left Behind or restricted by the assurances of a federal Race to the Top grant. Whereas my opponent’s positions and priorities have been led by the feds, I have worked with Georgians to chart our own course and take charge of our educational destiny.

The biggest challenge the state school superintendent will face in the coming years will be the tendencies from some policymakers and special interests to go back to previous failed federal policies—the tendency to narrow opportunities, instead of expand them; to label our schools instead of lifting them up; to pressure and punish our students and teachers through testing, instead of freeing them to learn and to teach; and to go back to an agency that overemphasizes compliance and consequence, instead of true service and support.

With increased outcomes—rising graduation rates, ACT, SAT, AP, and reading scores—coupled with expanded opportunities for students—arts, STEM, STEAM, career technical education, agriculture, and computer science—Georgia is on the move and heading in the right direction. These outcomes are a testament to the hard work of our teachers and students.