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State superintendent candidates square off in debate
ATLANTA – The two candidates for state school superintendent laid out their respective visions for improving education Thursday during a forum sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. 

Incumbent Republican Richard Woods, who is seeking a third term in November, described his achievements as state superintendent over the past eight years.  
His administration reduced the number of high-stakes tests students have to take each year and the number of observations their teachers have to undergo, Woods said. 
Woods said his administration has increased support for teachers. He pointed to a recent pay raise for teachers and a new law that allows retired teachers to return to the classroom at full pay. 
The state Department of Education (DOE) also recently published a report on teacher burnout in Georgia. The DOE will soon announce a program to provide free mental health support to teachers, Woods said. 
“I think the best thing we could do to address mental health in the state is giving our teachers time to build relationships with their kids,” he said. “If you put a great teacher who was nurturing in front of each and every child, that means that they have hours of therapy each day.”  
Under Woods’ watch, the DOE has bolstered career and technical education in the state, he said. The department is creating new English and Language Arts standards as well, which will help address sub-par literacy rates among Georgia students.  
Woods said he sees the role of the DOE as “service and support” and “compassion over compliance.”  
Woods’ competitor, Democrat Alisha Thomas Searcy, said her past experiences as a school superintendent, a state legislator who served on the House Education Committee and the mother of three school-age children qualify her for the position.
Searcy ran for the post in 2014 but lost in a Democratic primary runoff. Before that, she served as a state representative for 12 years.    

Searcy said that she envisions a Georgia where every school has a mental health professional on staff.  
“Yes, that’s expensive. Yes, that’s a big goal. But, darn it, don’t our kids and our teachers and educators deserve that?” she asked.  
Searcy said that the state education funding formula needs an overhaul. A Georgia Senate study committee will begin examining that issue on Friday.
“We still have districts in rural areas in particular who don’t have nearly the adequate funding to serve the students in their schools,” Searcy said. “That should be unacceptable to educators in the state. It ought to be unacceptable to leaders in education.” 
Searcy said she thinks the DOE should serve as a clearinghouse for districts across the state to share lessons learned from new programs or approaches, especially as districts look to spend millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funds.  
“While certainly districts in the state have received these funds, there’s been very little leadership on providing support and guidance to districts on innovative ways that these funds can be used,” she said.
Searcy said the state should also ensure schools have access to educational technology that can help with assessing where students need extra support, especially after the COVID pandemic caused many students to fall behind.
“I’m living with a sense of urgency,” she said. “I will do something.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.