School safety and teacher compensation were two topics discussed during the Oct. 2 Atlanta Press Club Debates for State School Superintendent.
The moderator for the debate was Dale Russell, senior investigative reporter for Fox 5 in Atlanta, and the panelists were WABE education reporter Martha Dalton and AJC education reporter Eric Sturgis.
The candidates are Democrat Otha Thornton and incumbent Republican Richard Woods.
Woods is finishing his first term as State School Superintendent, and said a second term would see more growth with the state’s education system.
“Second term, we would continue to build upon the success we’ve had,” Woods said. “[We’d] look at an all-time high for [high school] graduation rates [and] for providing our kids opportunities with STEM and STEAM education…”
This year, Georgia’s high school graduation rate was at 81.6 percent, the highest since 2012.
When asked about school safety, Thornton said he did not believe teachers should be allowed to carry firearms, and schools should instead focus on providing “wraparound services” for students like mental health counseling, nutrition programs and after-school activities.
“Imagine the years that we’ve wasted in not providing those services and causing violence to increase in our schools, and not addressing the mental, social and emotional needs of our students,” Thornton said.
Woods said he trusts local school districts to make their own decisions about school safety and arming teachers.
“If you decide to arm teachers, that is your decision,” Woods said. “This is not a mandate.”
He also mentioned wraparound services, and said the state has given a million dollars to both expanding those services and school safety.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp released a plan late September that would give public school teachers a permanent $5,000 annual pay raise, and both candidates agreed that was an important priority.
“Secretary Kemp has looked not only at expanding [teacher pay], but seeing which ways we can save money through state spending,” Woods said. “I think we can incorporate and provide a balanced approach to education, especially providing a raise for teachers.”
Thornton said addressing teacher pay is a critical issue.
“If we can find a billion dollars to offer a corporation to relocate to the state of Georgia, we can find two or three hundred million dollars to compensate our teachers,” he said. “We’re losing 44 percent of our teachers within a five-year mark…”
The winner of this race would oversee 1.7 million public school students and an education budget that has been fully funded for the first time in more than a decade.