The Early Political Education of Richard Woods
The path for Richard Woods to become Georgia’s new state schools superintendent opened after his predecessor committed political suicide. John Barge might still have the top education office if he had not alienated Governor Nathan Deal, made fellow Republicans furious and simultaneously angered thousands of school choice families.
Barge broke with Deal in August, 2012 when he said he would not support a constitutional amendment to recreate the state’s charter schools commission. Barge aligned himself with the traditional education establishment that dislikes charters and especially alternate authorization.
Suddenly an outsider among Republicans and ignored by the Governor’s Office, Barge made the decision to announce he would leave the Superintendent’s office after one term to challenge Deal in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary; thus ended John Barge’s career, at least that phase of it.
Woods appears to have noticed how that played out. This was obvious when Woods delivered opening remarks at the Georgia Charter Schools Association leadership conference. A surprise guest, Governor Deal, made an early morning decision to attend with First Lady Sandra Deal.
“I am a friend of charter school K-12 innovation,” Woods told educators who packed the Busbee Center Auditorium last Friday morning at Gwinnett Technical College. “People will get to know me and I will get to know you but I guarantee you this, you will have no stronger advocate, no stronger person that will support and sing the praises of the work that you do.
“I will work to make sure you have the funding, the personnel and the resources you need to reach every child that comes through your door,” Woods said during an eight-minute address. He concluded, “Across the state we want to make sure we allow teachers to do the one thing they want to do, that is, close your door and teach and reach their child.”
Barge became Superintendent when Republicans swept the state’s top executive offices in November 2010. He was viewed as being a supportive player in summer 2011 when Barge worked to help keep 17 charter schools open for 16,000 students after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled a state charter schools commission that was established in 2008 was unconstitutional.
One year later his decision to oppose a charter schools commission constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot aligned Barge with local boards of education and superintendents. The amendment passed with 58 percent. Barge chose to stand side-by-side with a bureaucracy that could not save him from political extinction.
The next few years will be exciting and challenging. Deal wants to create an Opportunity School District that would allow the state to take custody of failing schools. His new Education Reform Commission will propose long overdue changes to public schools funding. Supporters will advocate for creation of education savings accounts and expansion of tax credit scholarships.
Woods talks about wanting to cultivate “good press” to replace the “bad stories” about Georgia public education. His chances for success will be greatly enhanced by recognition of who makes and who implements policy. Georgia is a school choice leader. John Barge possibly would still be there if he had made a different decision. Richard Woods seems to already understand that.
(Mike Klein has written about Georgia public education since 2010. He has held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting. Mike on LinkedIn.)
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