Incumbent Republican Richard Woods is seeking a second term as state school superintendent. Otha E. Thornton, Jr., the Democrat challenging Woods for the job, transitioned from a high-ranking, decorated career in the military and government to education advocacy with the Parent Teacher Association.
Whoever is elected will oversee Georgia’s Department of Education, which monitors school performance and testing, assists schools lagging in meeting performance goals, and in the coming year, will put $9.9 billion in K-12 public education statewide.
The state school superintendent enforces the department’s regulations and laws governing schools that receive state aid and can make recommendations regarding public schools’ “welfare and efficiency,” as outlined in the Georgia Code.
Woods’ career in education began 30 years ago. He worked for two decades in various capacities within the Irwin County School System until his first run for the post in 2010.
He was voted the Irwin County high school teacher of the year by his peers in 1992. After 14 years as an elementary and high school teacher, Woods became an administrator, working in the Irwin County system for the next seven years as a principal, assistant principal, and K-5 curriculum director.
Thornton graduated from Morehouse College and achieved a master’s and honorary doctorate from Michigan Technological University before enlisting in the U.S. Army. During a 20-year military career, Thornton served as a presidential communications officer and with the White House Communications Agency under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He received a Bronze Star for his logistics and communication work in combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2009 to 2010.
After retiring as a lieutenant colonel, Thornton served on the Georgia Parent Teacher Association board from 2010 to 2015, and became the first male African-American president of the National Parent Teacher Association from 2013 to 2015.
From the state level to the U.S. Department of Education, Thornton has shaped education policy, including passage of Every Student Succeeds Act.
Woods and Thornton appeared at a recent debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. While they differed on sources for funding public education, they generally agreed on increasing pay for teachers, reducing the emphasis on standardized testing, and providing additional social and emotional support – known as “wrap-around services” – particularly for low-income students.
Woods and Thornton diverged on a couple of notable issues.
On the subject of school safety, Woods said that the decision whether to arm teachers should be made at the local level. Thornton considers arming teachers to be a bad idea.
They disagreed on the effect of the Student Scholarship Organization, which accepts and manages tax-credit donations funding scholarships for students to attend private school. The state legislature recently increased the cap on the tax breaks to $100 million from the previous $58 million.
At a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum in August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Woods voiced no opinion on the increased cap for SSOs, while Thornton said that the program takes money out of the public schools and he would work to reverse the decision.
The AJC also reported that Thornton opposed the Republican-backed Opportunity Schools District amendment that was defeated by voters in the 2016 election. The program would have transferred oversight of “largely failing schools” to a new state agency, whose head would be appointed by, and answerable to the governor.
According to his Sept. 30 campaign finance report, Woods had raised about $24,000 in his re-election campaign, spent $17,700, and had about $6,300 available.
In his Sept. 30 report, Thornton reported raising more than $129,600 and spending more than $118,400, leaving about $11,470 on hand.