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School chief hopeful questions testing

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- State school superintendent candidate Joe Martin "never dreamed" of getting back into politics, but the Democratic hopeful from Atlanta found himself sharing his ideas on education Thursday with the Albany Rotary Club.

"I've been going around the state and if there's one thing in common, it's the concern that people have about education," said Martin, who served on the Atlanta Board of Education for 20 years starting in 1977. "I believe education is the great emancipator."

Martin is competing for the state school superintendent position in the Nov. 2 general election against Republican John Barge of Cartersville and Libertarian Kira Willis of Roswell.

After his 28-minute presentation to Rotarians, Martin was asked for his thoughts on the Dougherty County School System having two special investigators assigned by Gov. Sonny Perdue as a result of a high level of irregular erasure marks on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

"We can't tolerate dishonesty," he said. "Anyone who fudges on a test should be reprimanded. If you look at the big picture, we've created a monster by putting too much emphasis on standardized tests. If you put pressure on teachers to do well on tests and, like Atlanta (Public Schools), offer bonuses for good tests, we create an environment in which bad things can happen. We need to insist on honesty, but not go overboard on standardized tests."

Although Martin said that Georgia schools had "gotten better" over the years, he believes there's room for improvement. He said the state's SAT scores are "really at the bottom." Citing the National Assessment of Education Progress, Martin said that only a third of the state's fourth- and eighth-graders are at the "proficient" level. Measuring the graduation rate by actual ninth-grade headcount, only six of 10 students graduate from high school.

"Yes, our best students are knocking the ceiling off, but more of them need to do better," said Martin, who served in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star.

To illustrate how much better Georgia could be, Martin used South Korea as a comparison. He said the Asian country has a 240-day school year, while Georgia, along with the rest of the country, has a 180-day calendar. Because of the economy, however, the Georgia Department of Education has provided flexibility to that calendar the last two years with some state school systems meeting four-days a week and for 147 days.

"When we talk about education, we have plenty of blame to go around," said Martin, who attended Harvard University's business school and earned a master's in business administration in finance. "We have some challenges in Georgia with more than half of the kids in our public schools receiving free lunch."

Martin pointed out many ideas and programs aimed at improving state education don't measure up. These included vouchers, charter schools, teacher merit pay and Race to the Top. He believes "adequate funding" for public schools and flexibility in how schools spend their resources would help to address issues.

"We need dual enrollment," he said. "If we've got 11th- and 12th-graders getting bored, let them take classes at the technical school or four-year schools and let them play football. (We need) more second-chance schools because we have a lot of kids that don't fit in.

"We can create an education culture here in Georgia. It's Democrats and Republicans working together. We need better blocking and tackling and not (special plays). We need to praise teachers who show up every day."

Former Dougherty County School System Superintendent John Culbreath attended Thursday's Rotary luncheon and was impressed with Martin.

"He understands the resources necessary, talking about money, to adequately fund education in the state of Georgia better than most folks and he articulates it very well," Culbreath said. "He stands for the right things and right stuff for education in the state."