ATLANTA — Editors note: Some answers were edited for clarity, watch the raw footage at the bottom of this story.
More people are invested in the conversation around schools and children since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before.
11Alive has been getting to know the people running to be the next state superintendent.
In our third interview, Cobb County School Board member Dr. Jaha Howard sat down with Christie Diez to discuss the biggest challenges facing Georgia schools.
Christie Diez: So for people outside of Cobb, introduce yourself to Georgia voters.
Who is Dr. Howard?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Who is Dr. Howard? I’m currently one of seven Cobb County School board members and candidate for Georgia State School superintendent. Well, I'm a dad. I'm a husband of almost 15 years. I'm a deacon at my church. I'm a pediatric dentist and business owner of over 11 years. I'm a community member.
I'm somebody that loves God and loves people, and I try to work on doing that in real life. Have an approach to things in a sense of just trying to keep up with excellence and compassion. So that's how I approach work. That's how I approach engaging the public. That's how I approach things. And so here is an opportunity for us to just love on people through action and through work. It's something that we've been doing in different capacities as a pediatric dentist.
We've been doing a lot of community work for many, many years. And here we are, getting into the political space of several years ago as a school board member. And when we see a need, try to do something about it. I want to be a part of the solution. And so there is a need for a different kind of leadership in this day and age that we're living in. And that's why I'm running for Georgia State Superintendent.
Christie Diez: What would you say you've done in your role as Cobb County school board member that would make you the strongest candidate to be state superintendent?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I gave a voice and I'm continuing to give a voice for our educators and for our children. For too long, there's been a big gap between what's happening on the classroom level and what's happening with policymakers or, in our case, board members. There's a disconnect. And so I think we've done a tremendous job helping the public know what's really going on and how each individual has a voice has power to be a part of the process.
And with that comes some conflict and conflict is a good thing if we're moving forward to a better relationship and with public education, our schools belong to the public. And so here we are, taking that same mentality of bringing the public to the boardroom, bringing to the leadership capacity. That's what we're doing and we're doing it together.
Christie Diez: Right now, you are making changes in the second-largest school district, one that is growing in diversity. It is one of the largest in the metro. There's still a lot to be done on the local level.
Why not stay where you are and affect change where you are? Why try and go for state superintendent?
Dr. Jaha Howard: So you go where the need is. And the good thing is here locally, we have activated so many moms and dads and other parents and other students who really are engaged in the process now. And so I feel very confident that the work that we are doing, it's time to pass that baton to another highly qualified individual to keep that work going. Not to mention, we have a board of seven and right now there's only one woman on the board.
And the way that the lines have been redrawn, I am currently been drawn into the same district as my woman, colleague and a friend of mine, Cherise Davis. The last thing we want to do is compete for a seat as well. So it's time to have more diversity on our board when it comes to gender when it comes to perspective. And so I am happy to pull back from this role after serving this complete term and then going into another role for state superintendent.
Christie Diez: You've been a somewhat controversial figure on the school board, vocal if nothing else.
How well would you say you work with people you disagree with?
Dr. Jaha Howard: So generally speaking, I work really well with people that I disagree with. And I think we're all learning over the last couple of years that at some point you realize that it's bigger than a disagreement. There are some power structures at play and it's not about logic, it's not about talking through complicated issues. And there are some people who are not interested in relationship building. They are interested in flexing power and preserving the status quo.
As a community member, we work with Republicans, Democrats, it didn't matter. I mean, in my practice of over 11 years, we have folks from all types of political backgrounds, family backgrounds, all kinds of perspectives. We rally around our common goal and let's make our schools better in the community or in the office. Let's help make sure our kids are loved and that they're on a plan to get healthier. But what we've learned, what I've learned, there are some spaces.
There are some political spaces where the goals are not the same. Maybe verbally they're the same, but when you get behind closed doors, the goals are not the same. Folks, they're more interested in preserving status quo power and the way things are over everything else, over every principle that folks say they believe in, whether it's fiscal conservatism, whatever approach it is about all kids learning and getting what they need.
When I reach that and see that face to face, you have to make a decision. Do we just go along to get along? Or do we say what needs to be said? And that's what I chose. I chose to say what needs to be said, even if it made me unpopular in certain circles because our children need strong advocates, and right now there just aren't as many as we need, especially at the state level.
Christie Diez: There is no doubt the coronavirus pandemic has created a wide spectrum of people that have varying opinions, and some fall at the very different ends of those spectrums and we're seeing those differences. You took a little heat for a social media post that you wrote that had a somewhat sarcastic tone.
Is there anything you'd like to explain to people if that comes up as they're researching background about you?
Dr. Jaha Howard: There's nothing to explain, but we advocate for our children and advocate for the safety and well-being of our children. Period. We've had some parents that were advocating for their own personal desires over everything else, over the well-being of the public. Yes, I had something to say about that.
Christie Diez: What do you think is the biggest lesson you've learned throughout the pandemic and how education has had to pivot throughout?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Now, I think the biggest lesson is that public education can change, can adapt. Public education has been knocked for decades for saying that it just won't change, it won't budge. And we've learned that through tremendous hardship through the pandemic.
We've learned that there is an amazing opportunity for us to find ways to do what we do even better. The pandemic also shed a light on existing problems. We've been kind of in a world where we've almost had our world kind of photoshopped, and we've been led to believe that everything's OK and normal is OK. But the pandemic showed us that we're not OK.
The inequalities with our health care system, the inequalities with our academic performance and the needs of our children, everything was on full display. Even folks who don't have kids in the school system, and don't feel that direct tie all of a sudden, the pandemic helped us to see how we're all integrally linked together. We're linked together, how it affects one school affects another.
And so I think here is an opportunity for us to say, 'Hey, we can actually emerge from this even stronger.' Will it be a challenge? Absolutely. No relationship worth its salt, you know... I mean, you got to go through some challenges to achieve your goal. And here we have a relationship problem here. But it's been revealed now we have to choose what to do about it. And I'm choosing to be a part of the solution. But just like in my practice, you can't fix a problem if you don't properly diagnose it.
And so yes, you've seen a version of me that says, 'Hey, I see that we need to actually be honest about what the problems are.' Hard truth requires hard work, and I realize that a lot of us haven't wanted to hear the hard truth, and I'm here to not only expose what some of the hard truth is but also be a part of the solution. And that's why I'm running for office.
It's much easier for me to stay in my practice or be in a political office. That's a little more easygoing for personal reasons. It will be a lot more comfortable. I can make more money. You know, I don't have to make a name for myself. I'm doing what I've always dreamed of doing already, but I'm doing this and my family made this decision together to do this because it's personal for me. I have three kids in our schools. It's very close and I know you understand this because I've seen this in your reporting.
When something's personal, it's a different kind of drive. You're going to see what needs to be said. Do what needs to be done because it matters. It's personal and that's where we're going to stay. And I think voters should have options and we have chosen to be one of those options.
Christie Diez: What is your position on masks in schools now and moving forward as we face future variants of the coronavirus?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Sure. I think we have to be aware of what the current situation is. Right? Masks are tremendously helpful, but we shouldn't mandate it across the board unless we absolutely have to. There have been periods of time over the last couple of years where I thought mandated masks are necessary and needed, but we also have to appreciate nuance.
What's happening in one part of the state isn't the same things happening in another part of the state or other kind of measures and safety measures that's happening in one district is not happening in another district. So we can't just come just drop a hammer and just say masks have to be mandated everywhere forever.
No, I think we have to have flexibility. We have to make room for freedom. We also have to be honest with what's going on in our own backyards at the time and be ready to pivot and not get caught into 'I'm on the math side or I'm on the not on the math side.' Let's do what needs to be done at the time.
(Update: At the time of this interview, masks were still required by the city of Atlanta. The mandate has since been lifted, so Dr. Howard added this statement on March 13, 2022:
“I love seeing the smiles of our students and families. I’m beyond pleased that recent data allow for us to relax on safety measures like mask mandates. We must consistently consider the changing landscape and be flexible enough to make the appropriate adjustments.” )
Christie Diez: What about vaccine mandates? There is specific legislation going through the Georgia Legislature right now that as it's written, as you and I sit here, it would ban all vaccines in schools. Now, the creator and sponsor has said he will rewrite it so that it would ban only the COVID vaccine. So we're waiting on that iteration.
But what is your position on that legislation and in general, vaccine mandates in schools?
(Update: This bill, Senate Bill 345, has since been rewritten to ban only the COVID-19 vaccine.)
Dr. Jaha Howard: We're seeing so much legislation of our lawmakers trying to really impose just dangerous ideologies across the board into our schools. And so this is just one of a laundry list of terrible bills, terrible bills. And there's another one that just passed the Senate House a few days ago, and that's trying to prevent our families from our children from learning about history if somebody feels uncomfortable.
I mean, it's a mess. We're getting back to the direct question. I think vaccine mandates, I mean, excuse me, banning mandates is extremely problematic, extremely problematic. And when it comes to COVID vaccine, I think we should highly encourage not just with our words, but with our actions for children to have vaccines if parents want. If parents want.
These are our children. I think it's foolish at this stage of the game to mandate it for all students across the board. I think that's foolish. I think that's overreach. But I think that we should strongly recommend it. We should make sure our schools are used as test sites and vaccine sites. I think we should make it easy for folks to be a part of that solution. But let's also be honest with what we know right now.
Vaccines are a part of the solution, but they're not the solution. So let's take a comprehensive approach. Let's make sure testing is readily available. I know recently we've seen some improvement from the federal government, but across the board in the state of Georgia, our leaders have not done very well making sure that testing is happening. Let's make sure that there are vaccine sites this year. We take a comprehensive approach to make sure our children are well, but also leaving room for nuance and flexibility, not just with our words, but also with our actions.
Christie Diez: Speaking of legislation, there is another bill Senate Bill 226 that would seek to limit certain reading materials in school libraries.
What is your position on that legislation?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Foolish legislation. And it's so unfortunate because we have a coordinated effort from some lawmakers to try to ban books, but we don't have that same energy to make sure that our children are reading on grade level. It's embarrassing that we are just basically going along with this nationwide push.
So a well-funded, well-orchestrated, well-coordinated effort to try to make all things seem like the boogeyman of education. When we should be having a well-funded, well-coordinated effort to make sure that our children are reading on grade level, that we are connecting the dots from organizations and public education and in the public sector, private sector, faith-based communities to make sure we have an approach to make sure our children are reading. And instead of that, we are consuming so much time and energy listening to lawmakers try to win an election.
And it's unfortunate. And so, yes, I think it's foolish. And again, the state of Georgia was supposed to be about wisdom, justice and moderation. Where's the wisdom in banning books? Where's the justice? Where's the moderation? We have a lot of work to do. Let's focus on making sure our children are well. Making sure that our children are learning, making sure that our children are thinking critically and that are ready to be productive citizens in our society.
Christie Diez: Supporters of the legislation would probably argue that it's not banning books, it's making sure that the appropriate material is available to kids based on their age and grade level, and would argue that it's about making sure they can't get their hands on obscene material.
How would you respond to that argument?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I would say, trust your educators. We have lawmakers who are not trusting our educators to do what they have been trained, what they've given their life to doing. We need to trust our educators as a profession. Can you imagine... I'm a pediatric dentist. Can you imagine a lawmaker saying, you know what, we think some of the material is kind of obscene or inappropriate? I'm going to make a law that says, you can't say the word cavity. I want you to instead of saying cavity because it's making people feel uncomfortable and it's causing distress to some children.
We're now going to have a law saying, you've got to use the word, you know, breakdown of hard tooth structure instead of cavity. That's the kind of thing that's how crazy it is for these lawmakers to try to tell our educators what to do. Can we just make sure that they have what they need? Can we stop giving them unfunded mandates? Can we start checking boxes as if we are doing a great job with funding education because we oh, we finally fully funded education? But then forget to tell people that we're using a model in a formula from the 1980s. Let's keep the main thing the main thing. And we've been spending a lot of major time on minor things.
Christie Diez: This is arguably one of the more controversial times in education really surrounding educational content in schools. One of the hot topics right now is critical race theory. It's lighting up school boards and, you know, across the nation, including here in the metro.
What is your position on critical race theory should it be taught in schools? And is there a grade level at which it's appropriate?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I think it's important to properly define a thing first and acknowledge that critical race theory is used in highly academic postgraduate course curricula, not in K through 12 curricula. I think it's important to define a thing properly first, because what we've seen again is a well-funded, well-organized nationwide approach to redefining critical race theory to be the catch-all of all things scary in social circles. And all that does is hurt our children.
I've talked to numerous educators who don't even know if it's OK to talk deeply about race in history, past, present and future because they're afraid of it potentially being against the law and it being used against them when they're trying to reach their professional goals. Are our teachers not being trusted? So the whole idea, the whole conversation is so ridiculous. But here's what we need to do. We need to make sure that we're teaching history and allowing our educators to drive the car, teaching a full history that's age-appropriate and allow our teachers to drive the car. What? And just to connect some dots and make it very practical as people are watching this.
Based on what I'm gathering, there are some lawmakers and a lot of lawmakers, the majority of lawmakers who are basically saying it's OK to talk about Brown versus Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision where segregation is now deemed illegal. But it's not OK to point out the fact that it took 11 years for Cobb County schools to start to integrate their school system. And it took decades after that to make sure you had a first black principal. Oh, and what about the fact that we currently have a high school and I think an elementary school that's named after a Confederate general? So now bringing those things up are deemed divisive. So that's where this legislation is so problematic.
It's keeping educators from having very real conversations. It's stunting the growth of the intellectual growth of our students who want to go deeper than just a fact and a date and actually go down that journey of understanding how history and legacy the good and the bad affect us even today. But instead of doing that, we're creating laws, unfortunately, and that has the support of our governor and our superintendent and our state board of Education of saying, yes, let's go along with that. That is disgusting. Disgusting.
Christie Diez: How would you face a political fight or controversy like this if you were the superintendent and you were the odd voice out?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I'm not afraid of being the odd voice out because I'm if I'm the odd voice, it's because I'm the odd voice in political circles. I've learned that the everyday people, and I learned this in Cobb County. I learned this growing up in Atlanta. The everyday people in this state are wishing that we had an advocate that had some backbone that will stand up for our children. Not just in cozy and political bed with whoever the governor is at the time, so wherever their governor goes, the superintendent goes along with it.
No, folks don't want that. Folks want somebody that says our children -- that's my special interest. That's my special interest, not my next step, not my whatever, not who likes me, none of that. What's best for our kids? Period. And not just some of our kids, all of our kids. What's best for our children in Georgia? That's my special interest. This is why when we're raising money or any group that wants to support me, they know like, look, it's no strings attached here. We're going to do what's best for our children, period. Don't come with some kind of special thing, where are you going to try to pull me left and pull me right, all of that.
This is not about left or right. Sometimes the best ideas don't belong to one party. If my Republican friends have an idea and it seems like it's the best idea and it's going to benefit our children the most, then we need to go at that. If my Democratic friend has an idea and it's the best for children, that's what we're going to go with. And that's what I learned. Community organizing in the Smyrna area, we didn't care if you were Republican or Democrat. We said, 'Look, we want our high school and its feeder schools to be strong. We want to make sure we coordinate efforts,' and that's what we did. It was when I got on the school board and learned how power structures are working and rules being made to silence my voice and my colleagues' voices so that we can't even get things on the agenda they have to do with the safety of all of our children. That's when I learned how power works for real behind closed doors. And I brought the entire community along to see the power structures and the people who perpetuate these things.
They hate it because they love to do their dirt behind closed doors, and we're shining a big spotlight on it. I don't pretend that I'm perfect. I'm sure I'm going to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing plenty of times. But this campaign is about imperfect people trying to make a more perfect state. And we're going to do it together. You don't have to be perfect to be part of the campaign that we got going on. You don't have to know everything. You want to have all the perfect words. But guess what? We're about principle. We're about trying to do things right for our kids and appreciate nuance. We can strive for academic excellence and do it with compassion. We don't have to pick one. Let's talk about wraparound services. Let's not be afraid to say the word equity, because all that means is kids getting what they need, but we have districts that literally are telling their employees don't use the word equity.
That's even happening at the Department of Education right now. Well, yeah, maybe we can do this work, but don't say that word. Folks are so concerned about politics that they're not doing what's best for our children. And I'm tired of it. It is personal for me, not only as a dad, for my own three children in public education, but I have thousands of patients and I work every day. Even this morning. When I look into my patients' eyes, I'm going to do what's best for them. And when their parents talk to me about the issues that are going on, they don't care about this critical race theory stuff. They just want their bathrooms to have running water and like warm water and soap. Can we make sure that the roof isn't leaking? And we don't have to wait five years for the next SPLOST project? That's what matters to the families on the ground, and that's what we're bringing to the table.
Christie Diez: What do you think is the biggest threat facing education right now?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I think a lack of urgency. A lack of urgency, something that I've learned being on the board in Cobb County in Cobb is known for a lot of wonderful things. But sometimes I've learned and this is not just Cobb, this is other districts around the state. It's not that we're failing to do the right thing, you know, it's not like that. We're just like out there. And there's not a lot of bad guys out there who are just trying to do wrong stuff. What's happening is that we're just choosing not to move with urgency, to do the right thing. For example, there may be an urgent need to make sure that we have another building to make sure we don't.
We can relieve overcrowding. A lack of urgency says we can do it next time and a project takes it takes off in four or five years instead of year one. That's the kind of thing that happens too often, and it's that accumulation of things that had been pushed on for days, for months, for weeks, for years. That starts adding up when it comes to the success of our children. We need to move with urgency. And also not be afraid to just do what's right. Also another issue I'll say if I had a close second... I've seen so many people are so nervous about getting out of their lane that they're choosing not to do the right thing by just coordinating with another group. Everyone likes to say, that's not my lane, so there's nothing I can do about well, you may not have direct responsibility, but you do have influence.
What can you do to make things better? And that is the problem. And so in our campaign, we'll be coordinating efforts because there's a lot of great efforts that are underway. But who's coordinating these things? How come there are all types of early education groups and non-profits and organizations? How come they're not talking to one another very well? It's the Department of Education that could be that place that really brings folks to the table. But right now, we just have leadership that's so in bed with whatever the governor wants to do. And the governor is so in love with making sure that he wins reelection and appeasing his base and bites off his primary opponents. That we're just going on this journey and taking our kids for the ride, and it's not fair to them. It's never been about the seat for me, it's always been about the work. I could lose and guess what? It's OK. I just go back and work more hours at my dental practice. It's OK. But we're going to stand up and do what's right. And here we are.
Christie Diez: Do you think the pandemic and all of the pivoting to virtual learning days out of the classroom, do you think that created an educational gap that will be facing for years to come? And if so, how do you think that will affect our future workforce?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Yeah, absolutely. The pandemic wrecked academic achievement. But again, there is opportunity to consider doing things in a different way, more flexible way. And we've seen incredible examples of that happening all over the state. But we do have to deal with the consequences that we don't even know the full extent of the consequences.
I know, and it's interesting as a metaphor, we see that even in dentistry, I mean this the gap between kids getting their regular care. We're now seeing just how the situation has gotten so severe for so many of our kids, and that's just in the dental world is happening. What my physician friends, our pediatricians are saying the same thing. So it's not just education, it's like every aspect of life where there was maybe a lack of attention because we were focused on focusing on other things. Now we're going to have to start dealing with the consequences. And yes, and I'm so glad that we have had such an influx of federal money come in to start having money to deal with the gap. But it's not just about the money. We also have to have the sense of urgency. We also have to have the will and the manpower to make that happen. But one thing that I do want to say here about where our challenges are, the way that our lawmakers have treated the profession of public education has been so despicable that we are going to have to deal with a pipeline problem for a long time.
We were already struggling to seem to make sure that we have enough high-quality teachers. We are already struggling to make sure we have enough bus drivers and social workers and counselors and all of that. But we are doing the way that we're treating the profession and not trusting our educators is doing a lot of damage. And as state superintendent, we will build that pipeline up intentionally with urgency. And make sure that we have our high-quality educators coming from the state of Georgia, coming back into the classroom. So we're going to do it and we're going to do it together, not just with one silver bullet, because that never works, but with the conflict, with the comprehensive strategy, we're going to do it together.
Christie Diez: Well, let's expand on that, because the pandemic created burnout in a lot of fields, but particularly the education and health care, of course, but education is what we're focusing on. Teachers are burned out, administrators are burned out. Even the kids, students are exhausted. How do you combat that and how do you keep incentivizing good educators to enter the field?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Yeah, I think we start with changing the culture, changing the appreciation, the lack of appreciation to true appreciation. There is a moment in time when the pandemic first happened where our society was celebrating our educators like literally championing them every chance that we could because we're like, Wow, now that our kids have been home with us for a few weeks, we understand how hard you work every day and we had this spirit of really championing our educators. And then things changed, and now they've become scapegoats for so many people.
They are again well-orchestrated attacks on the profession. And that's just gross, it's disgusting we have to call the thing a thing. We have to call it out. And so what we'll do is say, look, acknowledge that what has happened over the last couple of years has not been fair to our educators. And not only do we want to make sure that we appreciate them with a check because money helps, but you can't just buy off a problem. We have to change the culture and we lead by example. We lead by standing up for your educators. And right now, we have leaders at the state level who are failing to stand up for our educators and for our students. They're refusing to. So we're going to change by demonstrating that from the top and help build that culture and work with our partners all around the state.
Christie Diez: Let's talk budget now. Education is constantly facing budget constraints. Teachers are constantly dipping into their own pockets to buy basic supplies that they need for their classrooms.
How will you work as state superintendent to make sure that the education system has the funding it needs and takes some of that burden off the teachers?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Yeah, hard truth. Hard work. Let's first tell the truth. We are going to stop celebrating fully funding education at a level and based on a formula from the 1980s, because it's insufficient. It's not OK. It's almost like saying, Yay, we have computers in every room, but then you tell and then you forget to tell people that, Oh, these computers are from the 90s. Let's tell the truth, we fully fund sometimes public education, but we got to tell the truth about how inadequate the funding formula is. A new funding formula with a new Governor who really cares about this with the new state superintendent that really cares about this can help make this actually happen.
After many failed attempts over the last couple of decades to make sure that teachers are there helping to develop a new formula to make sure that we are accommodating the changes with special needs education. The changes when it comes to insurances, I mean, even down to gas prices and energy prices, real estate. We have to make sure the funding formula is incorporating all of these things, making sure that it is grown to make sure our educators have what they need. And that's for every classroom. Too often we have educators that are in a more of a well-off, financially well-off neighborhood or a school where their pizzas and foundations are funding so much so many of the extra things and you have teachers who are maybe a few miles down the road and they have to come out of their own pocket for so many things. Enough of that.
And we have to lead by example. As a state, we can't make districts do anything, but we sure can provide guidance. We sure can. As the future of the Department of Education in Georgia, we can provide guidance, we can provide resources examples. We can help make that happen and amplify those voices who are doing it the right way and encourage and build up those that are having some trouble doing it. And again, that takes the sense of urgency and it takes leadership that cares and that owns up to the problem enough of the reputation protection where we just say everything's great, everything's great, everything's great. And we think if we say it enough that we don't have to address our problems.
Nobody wants to be in a relationship like that. You just don't go around saying, No, we're fine. We're fine, we're fine. And think that that's going to fix it. Now you say, Hey, we're OK, but we have room to develop and let's do the work. That is the fundamental difference between the leadership we bring and what we've seen over the last eight years, and we've had enough of that leadership.
Christie Diez: Children are, it seems, facing more obstacles outside of the classroom. Everything from poverty to instability, mental health, no Wi-Fi connectivity. It could be a range of issues. And while some of these may not be fixable directly in the classroom, it directly impacts their ability to perform in school.
How do you support students who are facing those kinds of obstacles?
Dr. Jaha Howard: You know, it's important to acknowledge that our children cannot learn well when they are hungry and when they're hurting. We are in the middle of a years-long pandemic. And we have to make sure that we are providing not only the funding, because some of that is coming from the federal government, but the organization in the collaboration at the state level and on the local level. And what you'll notice and approach from our leadership is that we're going to collaborate with other people. Imagine that and stop working in these silos as if we have all the right answers. Education has a way of interweaving with so many different other things in our society when it comes to property values and food insecurities.
All those things, we have to work with real partnerships, with our non-profits, with our faith-based organizations, with for-profit companies. There should be a collaborative of focused effort, just like you see a focused effort to try to get rid of the so-called CRT. Guess what, if we use that same energy to make sure our kids are reading, to make sure that our kids have enough counselors and social workers and wraparound services, we can do some amazing things together, and now's the time to do it because we are emerging from this disruption of the way things always are.
And folks are now willing to try and do some things that are a little bit different. So now's the time to do it. But it takes a change in approach, and that approach means that the Department of Education doesn't try to fix everything on their own, but we can also do what we can and have direct control over, but use work with our partners to influence all the other things that are going on in a very collaborative way. And we can make that happen.
Christie Diez: Let's talk about the equity conversation, more and more districts are hiring diversity, equity and inclusion administrators or creating offices within the administration.
What place do you believe that has in schools?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Yeah, I think it's important that districts responded by saying, hmm, they were looking at corporate America. Corporate America started, you know, you see this big trend in corporate America. You saw this trend with our colleges and universities. And then of course, with the summer of 2020, when folks were starting to really realize how serious our race problems are in our country.
You saw this effort to say, you know what, we need to do a better job with diversity, equity and inclusion. But then with the things, you also have a backlash from people who felt their power being compromised and you saw this intense backlash coming from the Trump administration and now you have these same characteristics coming from all of these legislators and all these bills that are coming out. All of this is a backlash to the forward progress of our country and our state wanting to do better with diversity, equity and inclusion. So again, calling a thing a thing, let's tell the truth about the backlash. Let's also tell the truth that there have been some people in the diversity, equity and inclusion space who may not have been very good at their job.
There are some instances of that, and we should say you're not doing a very good job and make sure that that doesn't happen anymore. But the concept of having a leader help districts move forward in a better direction is a great thing. But we want to make sure that the quality of leadership is there and make sure that the training is appropriate. Again, nuance, we don't have to just pick this side or the other side. There's a way to move forward to make sure, because at the core of this is making sure our kids have what they need, make sure that we understand our very diverse student and teacher and family backgrounds that are entering into our, our communities, into our school buildings, making sure that we're working with professionals to help us so that kids can get what they need and ultimately learn and do well and be ready to be great members of society.
Unfortunately, we've taken our eye off the goal and started attacking the methodology. If our goal is about our children succeeding and being well, then let's make the appropriate adjustments to the method. I'm not interested in just arguing back and forth about method and then forgetting the goal. The goal is about our kids. And so if we're going to talk about DEI, you know, we have to make sure that we're talking about that as a method for our end goal. So if we can agree on an end goal, guess what, let's work together and make it happen.
Christie Diez: Let's talk about violence in schools. How do you combat that issue?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Yeah. And the approach is similar to what I mentioned, we focus on excellence and compassion. So how do we achieve excellence? How do we make sure that our kids are safe and they're doing well in school? We have to be honest with what we're saying. Too many people are enamored by the emotional explosions of fights, but not taking the time to dig into why are kids fighting maybe more than they were in the past? And guess what? Are we listening to our educators? Are we listening to our social workers? Are we listening to our counselors? Well, I do. And they're telling me that our kids have had such disrupted lives over the last couple of years.
They've been not in the situation where they get their skill, they work together with one another, that we have more kids getting into these crowded spaces after being at home off and on for years. And now you see this explosion. Also, our obsession with testing. Leaves less room to talk about the social, emotional support for our children. It's all connected. We have to do a couple of things. Not only do we have to, of course, address the exploding emotional explosions of fights. But let's get to the root of the problem. Let's figure out what are the conditions that are going on that are leading to these fights. And if we're not having a conversation holistically, comprehensively, then we are doing a disservice to our children.
We do, and we just say the word gang violence and get everybody all off and running over to this extreme about, Oh, we got to do this, got to do that, we have to think, why is there gang violence? Why are there gangs? Let's ask those questions. And there are people who know what they're talking about. They know a lot of the answers. But can we coordinate our efforts as people who love kids and love families to make sure we try to get ahead of it so we don't have gang violence in our schools. I want to connect these dots here. We have the same lawmakers who are saying, Oh my goodness, these kids are violent, they're doing this and doing that. And at this in the same breath, they want to take away social, emotional support for our children. Make that make sense for me, because I don't understand that logic. It's this very similar logic that people just want to be tough on crime, but not want to talk about conditions and not want to talk about poverty. Now when I talk about all kinds of issues that are related. If we're going to talk about a thing, talk about it. If we're going to talk about fights, let's talk about the conditions that are leading to the fights.
And that's the approach that we bring to the table. And during the last couple of months when we've really been listening intensely with educators and social workers and students from outside of my own personal network, I'm hearing that consistent thing. Folks don't want to take the time to do the hard work, to have a comprehensive plan, comprehensively go after some of the root problems because guess what? It's harder. It takes longer to see results and too many lawmakers want a quick fix. They want to just check a box and say, Look what I did. I wrote a bill saying, blah blah blah blah blah for violence. And then they pat themselves on the back and then they move on. That's not helping our kids. We're so in this testing culture that we're colliding with as well. We're so busy spending almost the equivalent -- I've seen a study -- almost the equivalent of a month of school either testing getting ready for a test or some type of something dealing with the test. But what about our kids? Like, how are they doing, how are they learning, not just bubbling an answer? So let's make sure we are talking about conditions.
And we can walk into a lot of school buildings around the state right now, and anybody in their right mind will walk in there and look around and say, Wow, this is not the condition for a healthy environment, for quality education. What can we do about it? And there's a lot that we can do, but we have to do it together, not just as one person trying to save the day because that doesn't exist, but as a community, we save ourselves and work together through policy and through action.
>> Previous interview: John Barge | Meet the candidates hoping to run Georgia schools
Christie Diez: Teachers in Georgia can carry guns in the classroom if the local school board authorizes that. Do you agree with that policy or not?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I don't agree with the policy. I have not seen an argument that makes sense to me. Again, this is, I believe, another gross distraction from the things that matter most. We have lawmakers that are so excited to make sure that the NRA crowd likes them, that they're going to do anything and everything that they can do to make sure that their camp likes them, that they're not thinking about what's best for our children or for educators. It bothers me and it boggles my mind, but again, this is what I'm doing about it. I get frustrated with some of the things that I see.
And instead of just being frustrated and going along with my day, I use that frustration as fuel to do something about it. And this is what we're doing about it. Bring in an election campaign to the table that's literally listening to folks all over the state and trying to have a common sense, comprehensive approach. Tell the hard truth, do the hard work do it with nuance, focus on excellence and compassion at the same time.
Christie Diez: Testing in Georgia has become a bigger conversation.
What role should it play? How much emphasis should it have on whether students go to the next grade or not? How important do you think testing is in Georgia? What do you think of the state of testing now and should any changes be made?
Dr. Jaha Howard: Testing is a tool. It's a measurement. But unfortunately, over the last couple of decades and part of this is from the federal government, both sides of the aisle have created this obsession with testing and then tied so much federal and state money to it. And then you have websites popping up that are connecting a whole score or a school based on testing, and it's just not doing justice for what's right out here with the public education. So I believe that we should test our children. But it's one tool. It's one thing. It's not the thing. It's the equivalent of having a scale in your home. It makes very little sense to just keep jumping on the scale multiple times a day and forget to actually exercise and watch what you eat and live a healthy lifestyle.
The focus should be in using this metaphor on eating well and having a healthy lifestyle and trying to exercise, and then you step on the scale periodically to see how you're going with that particular measurement. Knowing that it still doesn't tell you everything because you can weigh what you want to weigh and still be physically unhealthy. That metaphor is just as relevant to public education. We are obsessed with testing. We are obsessed with testing, but we have to remember we have to treat it like a scale. It tells us something. But it sure doesn't tell us everything. We want our children to be high achievers and reach goals. But we also want them to be well. We don't need them just mentally all over the place in just trying to reach this number because they feel like if I don't get this number, then everything just goes away.
My future is ruined. That's on one extreme. And then the other extreme we have people who think that testing is so irrelevant that we should never test. We have to get out of these, this binary thinking of it's one extreme or the other. The truth is that tests are relevant. But you can over-test and we've been over-testing and we have to do a better job. Here's where some credit goes to the current superintendent. There's been some decrease in testing. That's good. Let's continue looking at what is unnecessary.
What are duplicates, what are just overlapping? Are the tests helping our students or are they just giving us the idea what's going on with that particular teacher or a school? Too often we're not getting real-time data back where we can actually help the student that took the test. So let's make sure if we're going to assess our students that we're doing it in a way where they can get feedback quickly and so that they can actually learn because again. At the end of the day, it's supposed to be about student achievement. So let's be more flexible, let's be more creative. And using testing as a tool, not as the tool, not the end-all-be-all but a tool.
Christie Diez: Before you can get to the general election, you have to go through the primary, and as it stands right now, it would be you and Everton Blair in the Democratic primary.
If you're trying to explain to Georgia voters, why vote for you instead of Everton Blair?
(Update: At the time of this interview, Jaha Howard and Everton Blair were the only Democratic candidates intending to run for state superintendent. As of March 4, 2022, Everton Blair suspended his campaign. The qualified Democratic candidates are Currey Hitchens, James Morrow, Jr. and Alisha Thomas Searcy.)
Dr. Jaha Howard:
Updated 3/27/21: "As a pediatric dentist, business owner, community leader and elected official, I have a proven record as a relentless champion for children and educators in our public schools."
Original response: Yeah, I think I've been very clear about my approach. We agree on a lot of policy. He's I consider him a political friend of mine, so I have nothing but good things to say about him. But voters have to make a decision in my job is to let you know about our approach in me. You're getting somebody who has been a business owner for over 11 years. So I understand what it's like to work with families and try to make sure and just really understanding day to day what it's like to make payroll and to still provide an excellent service in our case as a pediatric dentist.
I have a unique perspective where I see several thousands of families over two years. That gives that they have been forming, they come from all walks of life, so many different backgrounds and family configurations. They have taught me so much. We bring that information to the table. We've worked in the community for a long time even before politics, just getting together to make sure that our schools are right are doing well in our own backyard. That's what we bring to the table. I'm a dad.
I have three kids in our school system. I have three kids that are all very different learners. So for me, it's very personal. I bring a perspective, and I think that anybody out there who's interested in public office should bring their perspective to the table and allow the voters to make a choice. So I love the fact that voters have a choice and I have nothing but respect for my primary opponent.
Christie Diez: If you make it through the primary, then you would be facing either the incumbent Richard Woods or John Barge, who is a former state superintendent. What would you say to people who would argue, Hey, thank you for your service, you've done a great job at the school board. But you know what? It's really just been your first term. Stay there a little while longer, get a little bit more experienced. These guys have done it before.
Dr. Jaha Howard: And I would say, look at the facts of how they've done it. If you look back over the last 20 years. How are our kids doing? Are our kids reading well? Have you seen this tremendous upward trajectory of our kids reading while doing well? You can't really see that.
A vote for them would be a vote for just back to some kind of old days in a world that has changed right before their eyes. It's time for something new, different, innovative, and the approach is different. Not where we have these allowed lawmakers and leaders that are so separate from everyday people. And that's what we bring to the table. Someone that has literally our kids as their only special interests.
And you don't have that and you haven't had that for a very, very long time. So for me, the distinguishing factors are very simple. And then voters can go in and we'll respect the decision of the voters at the end of the day.
Christie Diez: Dr. Howard, I really appreciate your time. Is there any other topic that we haven't addressed that you think is important that you address or that we talk about before I let you go?
Dr. Jaha Howard: I just want to reiterate that right now, bills are being passed through committees that are criminalizing educators who are teaching history that may make someone feel uncomfortable. Our teachers, our schools are being criminalized, being deemed lawbreakers for teaching things that are considered. Divisive concepts. It's disgusting. Because I've been in a situation as a board member where during board member comments, board members make comments about all kinds of things.
I brought up a comment about how a lot of our immigrant families are affected by the ICE raids over the years and how that affects parent engagement and participation in some of our schools. The next thing I know it was deemed a divisive topic and board member comments were completely cut from our county school board meetings. I am living what is like to be censored when rules are changed. It's almost impossible for me and a couple of my colleagues to bring anything to the table as an agenda item because we've been censored. The best we could. We've been censored by our own colleagues.
And this same methodology, the same behavior that I've experienced in real-time. I'm watching it happen to educators all over the state. We're not going to sit back and just let it happen. We're going to do something about it. And that's one reason that I'm running for state superintendent. I'm somebody that brings a backbone to the table. No strings attached. You're not going to muscle me with all this political pressure.
I don't have aspirations that say, Oh, if you do this, I'll make sure you don't do that. I don't play those games. I don't have time for it. And neither do you. So let's do what's right for all of our kids. Let's teach him the truth. And let's help them to think critically through difficult things so that they can be better citizens in the future and help this society because we are all in a place where we need that help.