I like Kathy “With a K” Cox. I don’t know her well; she is not the type to call and chat. Neither am I. And most of our conversations over the years came in response to bad news on Georgia’s education front. With each new round of scores or studies, I would make the call to the Department of Education and ask for a comment.
“What does Kathy think about the stagnant SAT scores?” “Why aren’t our NAEP scores in reading improving?” “Why isn’t Kathy challenging the cuts to education by the Legislature?”
On her last day as school superintendent, I want to talk about why I like Cox.
I like her because she met my three criteria for a decent elected official. She was honest. I never feared that she would scrape the gold off the Gold Dome to pay for plastic surgery. I couldn’t say that about her predecessor and current state prison inmate Linda Schrenko, who would have rented a crane, strapped on a harness and started chiseling if it weren’t easier for her just to steal the money directly from the education budget to underwrite a facelift.
Secondly, Cox ran for school superintendent in 2002 because she wanted to do that job. She did not run to sell more insurance back in Peachtree City or because her granddaddy once held the seat or because it was a good stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. She genuinely believed she could improve education in Georgia.
And she has. While it’s still unclear what our exact graduation rate is because of how we count, there is no doubt that it rose during her tenure. Has she improved education to the point that we can all sit back, kick off our shoes and proclaim, “Well done. Pour the champagne”? (BTW, I would appreciate any English teacher telling me if I have the right punctuation on this sentence.)
No. But I think Cox took a moribund DOE, brought it back to life, set it on the right path and led Georgia into the age of tougher standards, greater accountability and higher expectations. I don’t think everyone was ready to go down the path, including superintendents, principals and teachers used to closing the door and running their own universes.
I continue to be impressed with Cox’s hires at the DOE, talking to Martha Reichrath and Elizabeth Webb today at Cox’s goodbye gathering. These are smart women. They are not unaware of the problems. They are not ignoring the complaints about math or the concerns about vo-tech. They know there is too much testing. They have been in the classroom. They are not sealed off from the real world and the real challenges.
The farewell event today opened with a performance by student musicians from the Georgia Pick and Bow Traditional Music Program. Their first selection was “I’ll Fly Away,” which I thought was the perfect song for someone about to leave Georgia to head a think tank in Washington. Cox had her whole family there, including her husband, two sons, her mother, her sister, her niece and a slew of in-laws.
There was a funny slide show, including a great cartoon that spoofed both Cox’s many hairstyles over the years and her unfortunate comment in 2004 that the word “evolution” was a politically charged buzzword and thus wasn’t going to be part of the Georgia science curriculum, a decision that she came to regret and that she wisely undid.
But what I liked about the event was how much of it was spent talking about education. To her last seconds on the job, Cox talked about the performance standards, about efforts to get more kids to graduate, about the thousands of schools she visited, about her pride in improving conditions at the state schools for students who are deaf and blind.
And that is the third reason I like her: She is passionate about what she does.
At times, I wish Cox had showed more of that passion with her fellow GOP leaders, such as when Gov. Sonny Perdue responded to the gas crisis in 2005 by shutting down schools and idling school buses. That delivered the exact wrong message about the value of education and Cox should have called him on it publicly.
Cox was more progressive than her party on education or at least than the leadership, and I think that was beginning to wear on her. This year, she was a bit more outspoken about what the proposed cuts would do to schools.
She leaves DOE to become CEO of the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, which will advise states on reform strategies. I assume that she will not have any political muzzles in her new job, and I will be anxious to hear her views on education in Georgia in the next few months. The two Republicans seeking her post want to reduce the federal role in Georgia, and even the federal monies, which pay for special education and for extra help in Georgia’s low-income schools. I have to imagine that Cox might have a few words to say about that.
I think we all should look forward to hearing from her. I wish her and her family well. She worked hard for Georgia schools. She was honest and she was passionate.
And she was smarter than a fifth grader, which isn’t all that easy having two of them myself.