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State school superintendent

Martin and Cox, you know, for kids

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Georgia Democrats are just plain lucky this year.
The race for state school superintendent gives them a host of qualified and capable candidates from which to choose, and that list is topped by two impressive frontrunners.

The decision to back Barbara Christmas or Joe Martin was, for us, an agonizing one, but we lean toward Martin.

He just missed beating incumbent Linda Schrenko in 1998, by less than 4 percentage points, and it's clear that the relationship between teachers and state government would be better today had he been elected. In fact, both Martin, 59, and Christmas, 56, say one of the top priorities for them would be to rebuild the relationship Gov. Roy Barnes undermined when he chose to push his A Plus Education Reform Act by picking teachers as his adversaries.

The affable, Boy Scout-ish Martin is the guy for that job. The superintendent's role needs to be filled by a diplomat and a money manager, and Martin's Harvard MBA and business acumen seem suited for the job. When it came to discussing the fine details of education finance, no one was better. To that end, Martin would like to work to return the state to a more equitable funding formula so that per-student spending throughout Georgia's many counties is uniform.

Christmas and Martin take similar stands when it comes to reforming Barnes' reform package. Both believe schools shouldn't be held hostage by unbendable teacher-student ratios and that paraprofessionals need to be returned to the state's K-3 classrooms.

They also want more flexibility for middle school curricula so that elective courses aren't squeezed out by Barnes' stipulation that students receive five hours of core courses -- math, science, reading -- each day.

The two take a somewhat different approach on the recruitment and retention of teachers. Christmas favors more money and resources early in a teacher's career. Martin wants a structured career advancement track that would markedly increase a teacher's pay and status with years of service.

What further differentiates Martin, a businessman and former head of Central Atlanta Progress, is a strong working relationship with Barnes. Like it or not, in Georgia, all things are possible with the governor. Barnes appointed Martin to his Education Reform Study Commission -- the group that helped refine A Plus in 1998; Martin also served on the commission's funding committee.

That's not to say Martin is bulletproof. If he comes away with the Democratic nomination, his Republican opponent surely will hammer Martin's 20 years of service on the Atlanta Board of Education, a troubled system that spends more per child than any other district in the state.

Christmas, Martin's chief opponent in a race that could be decided by a runoff, gives off the tough air of a woman raised on the grounds of the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, which she was. (Her father was the warden.) Christmas champions common sense ideas that would help Georgia keep the teachers working in its schools. Hopefully the winner in November will explore her ideas for on-site daycare as well as a structured mentoring program for teachers.

Christmas has been a teacher, a principal and a school board member. She knows the business. And as chief executive of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Christmas also owns the experience of running a $5 million-a-year organization.

But that affiliation makes us wonder whether she'll be independent enough as superintendent. As head of PAGE, she built relationships with the state Legislature, but when it comes to making difficult decisions that stand to upset her former colleagues, what's the likelihood of her ignoring her nine-year relationship with the state's largest education organization?

Christmas and Martin face four other candidates, all of whom have backgrounds in education, but lack broad bases of political support: Peyton Williams Jr., 60, a retired deputy state school superintendent; author and scholar Theresa Bey, 53; Henry County assistant principal Larry Wayne McNorton, 51; and teacher and professor Phyllis E. Turner, 44.

In the Republican primary, the choice is clear.
At their most basic ideological level, Kathy Cox, 37, and Mitchell Kaye, 44, are nearly interchangeable. The central theme of both of their campaigns is the devolution of school control from the state to local boards and county governments. Many Georgia parents might agree with them, but the two Republican superintendent candidates seem to be forgetting one major obstacle to that plan: Barnes.

Barring a major upset, the governor and his Democrat-controlled Legislature will remain in office. So will the major components of A Plus. Georgia already weathered four years of Schrenko and her shameless exploitation of the education reform issue. We don't need another four years of that. So then the question becomes, which one of the candidates is more likely to get along well enough with the Capitol crowd of both parties to actually get something done? It sure isn't Kaye.

The east Cobb representative likes to say he built relationships in the state Legislature during his decade in office. The problem is most of those relationships are sour. This, after all, is the guy who got into a physical scrap with House Speaker Tom Murphy a few years ago, a shameful episode he brags about to this day. That's not the image we want for our children.

As for any expertise, Kaye can only claim his years on the House Education Committee and the fact that his children are in public school. His shallow background affects the answers he gives to questions about what he would do if elected. Instead of specifics, you get a string of cliches more typical of an athlete in front of an ESPN camera than a school superintendent: "We're headed for an iceberg, and that's not good for anybody," "We need to raise the bar," "We need to double and re-double our efforts." Asked to get specific about "raising the bar" on curriculum standards, the only thing Kaye offers amounts to "let's make courses more difficult." Not exactly visionary.

Cox, meanwhile, is an educator. She understands the field at its most important level -- the interaction between the teacher and the student. To that end, she wants to involve teachers more directly in the education decisions made at the state level. Barnes' A Plus reform package lacked that input.

She proposes reining in the alphabet soup of agencies that have spun off the Education Department. And she'd concentrate additional reforms on fixing the many imperfections of A Plus, so that teachers can concentrate on helping students.

To boost failing schools, the Fayette County legislator devised a bill to exempt teachers who worked in underachieving schools from paying state income tax. She says she would pursue a similar policy if elected.

Cox, a teacher since 1987, also advocates overhauling the state's vo-tech program in the hopes that improving it would encourage children who didn't respond to college prep work to stick around to graduate.

Where Cox fails as a candidate is the way she promotes Fayette County as the model for education in Georgia. If the rest of the state just became like Fayette, we could solve the whole thing, she reasons. The problem with that thinking is that most of Georgia isn't like Fayette. Most counties don't have its tax base or so many well-to-do parents ready to get involved.

But again, this primary is less about ideology and more about personality. One of the first things Cox says is that she wants to sit down with the governor to talk with him about what they can do together. Barnes has shown he doesn't need a superintendent to get just about anything he wants. The only way a GOP superintendent is going to get any part of her agenda accomplished is to work with the governor. Kaye isn't likely to do that, but Cox can.

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