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State schools chief race about experience

Barge, Martin, Willis on Nov. 2 ballot state Georgia's top education officer

POSTED: October 20, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Kara Willis

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ATLANTA — The race for Georgia's state schools chief could come down to which candidate is more experienced, but voters must choose what kind of experience they think is most important.

One candidate boasts of years in the classroom teaching students. Another is a veteran at the Gold Dome, advocating on behalf of public education and serving on state commissions.

Democrat Joe Martin has more statewide name recognition after years in politics, but his party hasn't held the state school superintendent's office since 1994 and he faces a tough battle in a heavily GOP state.

Republican John Barge, 44, is traveling Georgia, shaking hands and emphasizing that he knows what teachers need because he's been one. Barge has been a teacher; a principal, leading Chestatee High School in Hall County; a school district administrator; and a Georgia Department of Education employee.

"It comes down to leadership — who has the experience in the educational system and understands what the challenges are that each school system faces," said Barge, currently a Bartow County schools administrator. "I've been there, I've done that."

Libertarian Kira Willis is also running.

Martin, 68, a business and education consultant, maintains that a state schools superintendent doesn't need teaching experience to be a leader in public education. Martin served for years on the Atlanta school board and recently led an effort by a handful of districts to sue the state over funding for small, poor counties.

"I'm not a certificated teacher, but that does not mean I cannot be a strong advocate for teachers," said Martin, who has run for the state's top education job twice, narrowly losing to former superintendent Linda Schrenko in 1998. "No one can say I don't have education flowing in my veins and cannot understand what happens in the classroom and, more importantly, can translate those needs into the right policies and the best budgets. One doesn't expect the CEO of Delta to be a pilot."

The two agree on some of the biggest issues in public education in Georgia: Schools need more money, teacher layoffs and furlough days must stop and the state's new math curriculum needs an overhaul with more training for educators. But they've butted heads over the state's federal "Race to the Top" grant and whether the $400 million is worth more federal involvement in Georgia's education system.

Martin said he welcomes the extra cash, while Barge has been hesitant to support the program. Either way, the state must adhere to the promises it made to the U.S. Department of Education to win the grant, which include piloting a performance pay program for teachers in 26 districts and expanding a system that tracks students from prekindergarten through college.

The Libertarian Willis, who faces an uphill battle against the two men, has said the state shouldn't accept the money at all. The 42-year-old Roswell teacher argues local communities should run schools they way they see fit, with as little government involvement as possible.

The candidates also differ over how the state could raise more money for education.

Barge wants to allow tax revenue to be set aside for new buildings and repairs to be used for other purposes, while Martin has said the state should stop allowing tax exemptions for special interests. It's an echo of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes, who has promised to raise about $1 billion for schools that way.

Willis said the state could save millions by not testing first- and second-grade students and by switching to a system of testing students every other year rather than annually.

Of the three candidates, Willis has filed the most recent campaign disclosure form. She's raised $2,800 total.

In their last filings in June, Barge had raised $27,000 and Martin had brought in $121,000.

Voters head to the polls Nov. 2.



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