When a friend asked me if Alvin Wilbanks was the front-runner for state school superintendent, I got a sense of how hard it must be to run in a race that few people follow. Wilbanks, the Gwinnett County superintendent, is not among the three candidates seeking the state post.
Joe Martin is one of them, and the Democratic candidate wasn’t happy with a comment I made on the ajc.com Get Schooled blog that many voters will likely resort to eeny, meenie, miney, mo to decide the question.
“There is a huge difference in the philosophy, executive experience, and political independence of the three candidates, and the outcome of this election will have significant implications, regardless of who is governor,” Martin said. “I thought this would be a major concern for you.”
I am concerned. And, certainly, other voters are, too. But overall, this race has been eclipsed by the duel for the governor’s mansion.
The indifference reflects a lack of understanding of how important the state school chief can be in promoting education.
We’re at a point in which many people, even educators, argue that we expect too much of schools, that they can’t be viewed as agents of social change. It’s parents, they maintain, who really determine a student’s fate.
If the parents read to their children every night, review their algebra sheets and take them to museums on weekends, then the student will soar.
If the parents ignore homework, skip teacher conferences and don’t read their kids “Good Night, Moon,” then it’s “good night, success” in school.
According to that view, I should still be scooping ice cream at Dairyland because I can’t recall my parents ever reading to me or my three brothers. They didn’t take us to museums or plays or do our homework with us.
With two jobs, my father didn’t have time. With four children, a job and a house that was spotless enough for surgery, my mother wasn’t eager to sit down in the evenings and discuss symbolism in “Othello.”
They made clear we were supposed to do well, but they were hands off after that point. They sent us to school rested, fed and wearing clean socks; the schools were supposed to handle the rest.
And the schools did their part. All four of us were good students, graduating from college and beyond, as did most of my cousins. In a generation, my extended family went from high school degrees or less to graduate degrees in law, architecture and business.
Now, we all read to our children, drag them to art museums and quiz them on state capitals.
My family is testimony to the power of education to change lives for the better. Those changes can occur even in students whose parents don’t know how to help them, don’t have the time to help or simply won’t do it.
Yes, it would be easier if children had parents who taught math at Georgia Tech and drilled them with flashcards on long car rides.
But it doesn’t mean that the children of a cafeteria worker at Tech who doesn’t own a car or flashcards can’t succeed.
I hitched a ride Thursday on the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education bus trip when it stopped at Drew Charter, an APS school that spans preschool to Grade 8. The theme of the annual bus trip was schools that use flexibility to achieve.
What Drew really uses to succeed is what its principal called “intentionality.” Each decision is evaluated in the context of how it enhances student learning.
So, the school has longer days, a longer year and hand-picked teachers who believe that their students, despite 79 percent being poor enough to qualify for free and reduced lunches, can excel.
The proof is that the majority of students in grades one to eight met or exceeded state standards on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in math and reading.
When visitors walk into Drew there’s an immediate recognition that this is a culture of success, of high expectations, of “get behind our kids or get out of our way.”
Culture and expectations matter, and the state superintendent influences the culture of education in the state.
Each candidate for school superintendent has a unique perspective on how to create that culture and improve schools.
Republican John Barge doesn’t want a federal hand in education, believing the state has the sole responsibility and is the better equipped.
Libertarian Kira Willis doesn’t want a strong state presence, contending that state rules are strangling creative responses by local districts.
Martin maintains that the state has undermined districts and achievement by underfunding education for years.
As the leader of the state Department of Education, the school chief will oversee the $400 million federal Race to the Top grant and will have to help school systems cope with continued cuts to their basic budgets.
All three candidates have websites. Check them out.
We can’t give every child inspiring and attentive parents who read Dr. Seuss to them at bedtime and understand polynomials.
But we should be able to give every child an inspiring and attentive school environment.