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Meet the candidates hoping to run Georgia schools | John Barge

11Alive is sitting down with each candidate running for state school superintendent one-on-one.

ATLANTA — Editors note: Some answers were edited for clarity, watch the raw footage in the player above or in the 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 second interview, former state superintendent John Barge sat down with Christie Diez to discuss the biggest challenges facing Georgia schools.

Christie Diez: People have followed your journey as former superintendent to the congressional district, run for governor, another superintendent in McIntosh County. 

But what are you doing now? 

John Barge: Well, I retired from education two years ago, moved back to our farm outside of Rome, and we have our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren that live across the street. So, we spend a lot of time with our grandchildren. And I do some consulting work for a couple of different educational groups. 

A large portion of the time, I spend with an education technology company overseeing their expansion into Georgia with some digital fundraising management software for schools. And then I got my real estate license and do a little bit of that on the side as well.

Christie Diez: So if you're living the good life as a retired grandfather, why come back into the superintendent's race? 

John Barge: I never planned on coming back. You know, I was going to enjoy being retired and enjoy my grandchildren. But one of the reasons was my grandchildren are now at the age of two. They're ready to start school and my daughter has made a decision to put our grandchildren in private school, and I understand her rationale and her reasoning. And she has been a very successful businesswoman at a very young age and she can afford to do that. But you know, a large portion of parents in the state can't do that. And so what? What my thinking is, what about those children? You know, what's happening with them? 

We shouldn't be in a place where parents feel like they have to choose whether their public school is a safe place for their children to be or not. And ultimately, that is a major concern. And, that was a factor. I had several parent groups reach out to me about other issues that were going on in schools and asked me to consider running again. So after a lot of prayer and consideration, I decided that I would run for the seat again.

Christie Diez: You are choosing what is arguably one of the more contentious times in the education system. As you know, there are controversial topics everywhere about what educational content should be in schools. Critical race theory is one of them. 

What is your stance on critical race theory? 

John Barge: So, you know, I don't think critical race theory needs to be in our schools period. I think that critical race theory is an affront to Martin Luther King and his dream that his children would one day be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Critical race theory teaches our children to do the exact opposite, and a lot of it means different things to different people, and that's part of the problem as well. 

For me, anything that we are teaching that would cause our children to group themselves to either a class of being oppressed or a class of being oppressors is problematic. Children don't come to us as inherently racist. It's typically the actions in the adult, and in the words of the adults that tend to make that happen. 

On the flip side of that, I think that we have in many cases not taught all of our American history; the good and the bad to our students. And I will give you a prime example. You know, I was 52, 53-years-old before I ever heard a single thing about Black Wall Street or the Tulsa Massacre. 

Why? Why are we not teaching all of our history, the good and the bad? Because she can't learn from it if you don't teach it. 

I think critical race theory branches off into more of the divisiveness of there's always going to be racism, and if you're this race, then you are an oppressor, in this race, you're oppressed. And I think that's an affront to both races. That make sense?

Christie Diez: I'm curious how you define critical race theory and what that term means to you because as it's legally defined, the legal theory is not taught in any of our schools at this time. And if it is taught in a school, it's at the college level. 

So, why ban something that's not even a problem yet, that's not even being taught in schools? 

John Barge: But I think that's where we differ because it is being taught. Is it being taught in every school?  No, I don't think so. Like I say, that means different things to different people. I think when the current State Department of Education has book studies for teachers, for educators on books that Ibram Kendi spoke, who believes that the only solution to past discrimination is current discrimination, and the only solution to current discrimination is future discrimination. I think that's a problem. 

I think when you are asking teachers to do book studies in one of Dr. Bettina Love's books, who believes that white teachers are spirit murdering children every day in our classrooms that are of color. I think that's problematic. I think you're teaching the principles and concepts of critical race theory, even though you may not be calling it critical race theory. So, those things are going on. 

You have things like curriculum resources that many teachers don't have any control over. And we saw it come really to light during the pandemic when a lot of students were learning from home and teachers weren't trained or really prepared to teach virtually. Districts didn't have the resources really to teach virtually. And it left a lot of folks scrambling. And so a lot of things were purchased. A lot of things were done so that students could learn online and learn at home. 

Let's say there's a lesson in a digital resource called "brainpower" that lectures white students for 10 minutes on the guilt that they bear for being part of systemic racism. You know, those are issues for me that bowl back more down to the tenets of critical race theory. So for me, it's anything that again, that divides our children based on their races and one class is oppressed the other is the oppressor.

Christie Diez: There are several pieces of legislation going through the legislative system right now regarding education. One of them is Senate Bill 226, which would potentially limit certain reading materials in school libraries. 

What are your thoughts on that legislation and how do you make sure that you straddle the line without going into censorship? 

John Barge: Sure. I actually wrote letters of support for that legislation. I believe that's good legislation. I think that you know, we have a law on our books in Georgia. The obscenity law that makes it illegal, makes it a misdemeanor for any adult to provide offensive material to a minor. And the law specifically spells out offensive material that can be verbal descriptions. 

The part of the law that becomes problematic is the proverbial exception clause, and that exception clause says that no part of that law will apply to, and I'm boiling it down to just the fact that public libraries, including schools and colleges and universities. So while the law would make it illegal for a, let's say, a teacher to give a child one of these books in her home, it's legal for the child to get the same book out of the library at school.

 And it's not a matter of banning books. It's a matter of making sure that we are providing age-appropriate material for children in our libraries. These books would still be available in the public library, and parents could take their children to the public library and check them out if they so choose. It's not banning the book when you are putting books in the hands of middle school students that graphically detail a grandmother sexually molesting or assaulting her grandchild, that's a problem. When you have books that graphically detail male-on-male rape that are available for our middle school children, that's not appropriate. Books that detail rape. I mean, it's there. I can give you the actual verbal descriptions. It would make you or I uncomfortable. 

Why do we think it's appropriate for kids if it's if it makes us uncomfortable, what does it do to our children? I think it's not appropriate for their ages and if it's against the law for us to give it to a child. Why is it legal for them to get it in the school library?

Christie Diez: Your opponent, the incumbent Superintendent Richard Woods and Governor Kemp are working on what they're calling a "parental bill of rights" that would give parents more insight and more say in what is being taught and what is being shown, the material specifically. 

What role do you think parents have in choosing educational content? 

John Barge: Well, I think it's about time that we finally address the parents' rights. I think for many years he's been silent with parents that have come to him, and it's just kind of uncanny that it's an election year if he decides to list the parents. He's been silent on them for a long time, and that's been a problem. But I believe the "parent bill of rights" is good. I think that parents need to have more input into what's going on at school. 

And I think a lot of the problem has been over the years. I mean, when you go back to the foundations of public education in our country, the founders of public education believed that the parents and the church and bore the major responsibility of raising the child and the school was there to teach and to educate. And I think what has happened over the decades? With, you know, families and the situation and how the family has deteriorated and you have so many more single-family homes and not as much involvement in church, we have separation of church and state and that's fine. That's law. 

The brunt of raising the children for many parents, they've left to the school and the school has no real option and has taken on the role of parent for a lot of these children. And that's not the proper role for the school. And when we start doing that, we fail to focus on what our core mission is. And that's part of my platform is returning us to our core mission as to teach kids to read, write, do arithmetic, to be able to think, to solve problems, not telling them what to think, you know, not getting into making our schools the platform for cultural and social wars. 

We've just lost our focus to a large degree, and I think we see that in the last administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our fourth and eighth-grade students are fourth-grade students, reading and math scores, and a 14 year low. Our eighth-grade students, math, and reading are at an eight-year low. And those were measured in 2019, a year before the pandemic. So we can't blame COVID or the pandemic on the downfall. 

So I think that parents have a right to know. And I think that you know, even making sure that we have processes in place where parents can question resources that are being used and can raise concerns and ask for alternative options. We got to stop putting ourselves as a wedge between parents and children.

>> Previous interview: Richard Woods | Meet the candidates hoping to run Georgia schools

Christie Diez: How well do you work with those you disagree with? 

John Barge: I always work well, folks, I disagree with. I mean, that’s part of what we've lost in our society is the ability to disagree and continue to work together.

Christie Diez: Some who have followed your journey might argue that after watching how your contract ended in McIntosh County, there were pretty big tensions between you and the board. 

What do you do when you have that tension and you have to work with someone who has very different ideological differences than what you do? 

John Barge: Well, my contract didn't end contentiously in McIntosh County. There was an issue in McIntosh with board governance that got them in trouble with the accrediting agency. And before I left, we were able to regroup that board and for the first time in their history, they were recognized as a quality board by the Georgia School Boards Association. 

So, they did renew my contract. I retired because I had 30 years of experience and was ready to retire and move on to different things. So, there were challenges in McIntosh. Absolutely. But that's because there were a few issues between some board members and other board members and governance and getting into areas of that, really. Some of the board members violated their own code of ethics, which became an issue, which is one of the reasons that they were investigated. 

And it took us about a year and a half working together with outside sources to make sure that we were able to come together and be recognized once again for the first time ever as a quality board. 

Most superintendents face those challenges because elected, you know, local school boards are elected and they appoint a superintendent and just like you see in any political election, you have different ideologies, different parties and things, and you're going to have those confrontations on those issues and you have to be able to work together, which we were able to do and again, get them recognized as a quality board.

Christie Diez: Georgia is a large state and as superintendent, which you've done before, you oversee more than 2,300 schools, and each district has very different needs. A rural school district, its philosophies and its needs are going to be different than an urban school district and different geographical regions around the state. How do you make decisions for all of them knowing that there are different needs? 

John Barge: Well, I think one of the things that you have to keep in mind as state superintendent is Georgia is a local control state when it comes to education, and the vast majority of the authority is vested in to that locally elected school board and their superintendent. But what the state superintendent does have a responsibility to do in working with the state school board is to frame policy that those local school districts operate under. 

So, basically, the umbrella for them to operate under and then when you have issues that come up like. You know, back in 2016, when the Office of Civil Rights under the Obama administration sent every school superintendent in the country a letter telling us that we were required to allow children to use the bathroom of whatever gender they identify with. 

You have a responsibility as state superintendent to make sure you provide guidance to local school superintendents and districts on issues like that, where you've got the federal government clearly overreaching their authority and trying to direct local school districts in our state on something that is highly controversial. And so there are many things, as state superintendent, that you can do to help provide an umbrella for local school districts. But then at the same time, them still retain their autonomy as a local school board and local school district to define how things operate in their district.

>> Previous 

Christie Diez: What do you think is the biggest threat facing education right now? 

John Barge: I think it is the fact that we have gotten so far removed from our core mission of what we were supposed to do, and we're trying to be everything to all people. We are expecting too much of teachers. When I say expecting too much of teachers, we're spreading them too thin.  You know, with this swing towards whole child learning, social, emotional learning. Not that that's not important. It's very important. But teachers are not trained to be counselors. If they wanted to be counselors, they would go through the training to be a certified school counselor.

And it seems like when I talk with teachers that there is so much more expectation on that end and because there is so much on that end, there is a lot less time on this end. And when it comes to making sure we're teaching our standards in reading and math and what are their social studies or science or foreign language, you know, the time that we've taken away from them to teach what they've been trained to teach is extraordinary. 

And so I think we see student achievement failing and or falling. And so I think knowing that where we were within 2019 before the pandemic, NAEP is only administered every two years, so it would have been administered again last year, but it was postponed because of COVID.  If you think about the lost instructional time and what went on during the pandemic and shutdowns, early progress monitoring data nationwide shows that some children are as much as two years behind where they should be because of the pandemic. 

I think that our biggest challenge is going to be making sure that we have a plan in place to recoup that learning loss and get children back up to speed where they need to be.

Christie Diez: Speaking of the pandemic, that was an unprecedented curveball to the entire educational system, learning how to pivot and handle watching how all of that played out. What do you think is the biggest lesson you learned in how what's the biggest lesson you learned through the pandemic? 

John Barge: I actually retired six, just a few months before the pandemic hit, so I didn't experience the pandemic like current superintendents or leaders did. I think that there's a lot that we learned in the way of, as you said, Georgia is a very big state. You have connectivity issues across the state. 

So, some students in rural Georgia might not have been able to participate to the level that other children can because of the lack of internet connectivity that they have. Even today, you know, even with the efforts that we that we've made. You can go into the regions of mountainous Georgia and be up in a very populated area, let's say, of Dahlonega or Dawsonville and have zero connectivity. Again, down in South Georgia, the same issue. 

So, that's a challenge that we still have to figure out how we're going to deal with. I think, some of the curriculum issues, and again, the teacher training was not where it needed to be. Teachers weren't trained to pivot. I mean, kudos to them. They did an incredible job. But I think they probably would have been would like to have been better prepared. But none of this saw it coming. So I think preparation, I think resources and then making sure that you know that we have the right curriculum resources at the disposal for kids.

Christie Diez: You mentioned in the educational learning gap that you think exists, possibly because of the pandemic. How do you think that will affect our future workforce and how do we close that gap? 

John Barge: Well, that needs to be the focus of the next several years of whoever sits in the position of state school superintendent is to make sure that we have a process in place. We have a plan in place to recoup that learning loss. And some of it is making sure we weed out all of the things that aren't critical to the core mission of recovering lost learning when it comes to our standards. 

Try to get rid of all the distractions that crop up, whether it be critical race theory, whether it be whatever the crisis, the journey is and try to keep our focus on making sure that we have the resources in place for students, for teachers that we have, that we actually give teachers time to accelerate student learning, to recoup that loss. So, it's just a matter of getting the brains around the table to devise a plan to make sure that teachers have the time and resources to accelerate that student learning and close those gaps.

Christie Diez: What's your position on masks in schools now and moving forward? 

John Barge: I don't support mask mandates in schools. I think it should be a parent choice. Simple as that.

Christie Diez: What about vaccine mandates? There is current legislation right now that as it's written, as you and I sit here, would ban all vaccines in schools. The sponsor has said he will rewrite it so that it will exclude only the COVID vaccine. But what are your thoughts on that legislation and vaccine mandates in schools? 

John Barge: I don't support vaccine mandates, either. I think that there are a number of vaccines that are very effective in what they prevent, and we need to make sure that especially, you know, polio and those types of things, those are strong vaccines and they work.  They eradicated. The issue with COVID is it's not truly a vaccine in that it prevents the infection.

People are still getting COVID after two and three booster shots and some of them are still dying. So it's not a vaccine in that regard. I don't believe in a vaccine mandate for COVID. I think that where we have been with vaccines up until now is fine because it allows for exemptions, especially for religious exemptions and those types of things. So as long as you have that exemption, I'm fine with that.

Christie Diez: Another thing the pandemic created is burnout. Burnout in teachers, families, administrators, even sometimes the kids. How do you combat that and how do you make sure that we keep incentivizing good educators to enter the field? 

John Barge: That is a very difficult challenge to incentivize educators to continue to go into the field. Most educators go into it because they love kids and they and they want to make sure kids are successful. You know, that's the reason I went into it. Education was absolutely the thing that leveled the playing field is the only thing out there that breaks cycles, generational cycles of poverty. It's the only thing that can. Winning the lottery can't break poverty because you don't have an education. 

You're going to lose every bit of that money in a matter of time and you'll be poor again. So, it's education and folks get into it for different reasons. But I think a large majority of teachers get it for the right reasons to motivate children and help them be successful. Again, I think making sure that time-wise, we focus on making sure teachers have the time and the resources to teach what they were trained to teach and not expect them to become, you know, nurses and mental health counselors and all of these other things. 

We have nurses, we have counselors and teachers ought to be able to recommend students and refer those students to those services without losing the instructional time in their classroom for the rest of their students. So these folks argue about teacher pay. Teacher pay is, you know, it's not awful. What teachers have gone through. Has it been challenging? Absolutely. Administrators, what they're going through? Is it challenging? Absolutely. But I think from a State Department perspective in the Department of Education perspective, I think even being able to provide training and resources for them to focus on what they need to be focused on, let's cut back on our expectations if they're not directly related to our goals and our initiatives. 

And if we can cut them back, let's cut them back. It's a tough time for them, and I think that there's a lot that we can do.

Christie Diez: Let's talk budget. Education is constantly facing budget cuts and constraints; teachers are constantly reaching in their own pocket to get basic necessities that they need for their classroom. How will you work to help make sure the education system has the funding it needs and take some of that pressure off the teachers? 

John Barge: That's a very good question, and that's something that I have a much better understanding of now. Having been Superintendent of McIntosh County, it's a rural district, a very rural district, and I saw firsthand some of the issues with the state funding formula when it comes to QBE. So, for example, you know, a county like McIntosh, which the state considers it one of the wealthiest counties in the state, which puts it receiving no equalization funds from the state. You know, if you understand the funding formula, the Legislature will draw a line. 

They write the counties based on wealth, they draw a line in. If you're above that line and it used to be 20 percent, I think the top 20 percent of counties receive no equalization. The rest of the counties receive equalization money. That brings that up to a level of funding per student that's equal to that lowest county in the top tier, and McIntosh student population is 100 percent free, reduced lunch. And yet they receive no equalization because the state considers them a wealthy county because of their oceanfront land and the value of that land. But the issue and the problem that the formula doesn't take into consideration is that over a third of the land in McIntosh County is either owned by the federal government or the state government.

And so there's no opportunity for the county to recoup or generate any tax revenue from a third of the land in their county. It can't be developed. They can't do anything with it. It belongs to the government. They don't pay taxes. And so yes, they are land wealthy, but there's nothing they can do. And the population of the county, the entire county population is about 14,000 people. You can't tax those people enough property tax to make up to generate the income that you need. And so there are issues in that funding formula for rural Georgia that are real issues that I think a lot of legislators don't understand that if we could correct that, that would be helpful for those districts. And even something that seems as minor to some as the funding formula for school buses. 

You know, it used to be that you kept your school buses on a rotation of about 10 years, and that has grown exponentially now. And when you're on coastal Georgia, saltwater does a tremendous amount of damage to those busses that, let's say, school districts in North Georgia don't experience. And so treating all those districts the same when it comes to something as minor as that is problematic. You know, those counties have different issues and different needs. 

So I think making sure that as legislators that we understand the funding formula and we make sure that the idea of equalization is good, but let's make sure it's fair, and let's make sure that we address some of those issues. And I think that would shore up, especially in rural Georgia, the issues of teachers having to pull money out of their pocket to pay for classroom expenses.

Christie Diez: Let's talk about the equity conversation going on right now. More and more districts are hiring diversity, equity and inclusion administrators, DEI administrators and offices. What place do you believe that has in schools? 

John Barge: Well, I think I think we need to make sure that we have a clear understanding of the differences between equity and equality, those are two different things, you know, and some of that goes back and touches into critical race theory when you're talking about equity and outcomes. It's kind of, and I don't want to oversimplify it, but it's almost the mentality of everybody gets a trophy, you know? If you don't put in the work as, let's say, an athlete, if you don't put into practice, then you're not going to be as good as somebody else. You have the same opportunity to be. 

And in many cases, you need additional resources. But if you don't take advantage of those opportunities and those resources, you're not guaranteed the same outcome and equity tends to want to make sure that everybody has the same outcome. But if you're not, if the students aren't going to put in the equal amount of work, that's going to be problematic, you're not going to have equity in outcomes. 

Do we need to make sure the students have the resources that they need to take advantage of the opportunity? Absolutely. Again, I think that we can go too far and our pendulum when it comes to social issues. And so I don't necessarily think that every school district needs a diversity, equity and inclusion officer. You know, I think that we create a lot of our own problems needlessly, in my opinion, when we do things like that.

Christie Diez: Could you create or give me an example where you think potentially would be warranted? 

John Barge: Well, you know, I think. I don't know. I don't know that I can give you that because every school district is going to be different. I don't want to put something on a district. You know, I think the schools need to consider making sure you recruit teachers of different races and different ethnicities. Absolutely.

But I think bottom line, you need to hire the best teacher for your children. You know, I did that as a principal, and I did that as a superintendent. I hired the best people for my students. Race to me does not need to be an issue in your hiring. The issue in your hiring needs to be who is the best person to teach your children?

Christie Diez: Children, it seems like these days, are facing larger burdens outside of the classroom. How do you help students who are facing obstacles in their home lives, whether it's poverty, mental health instability, things that you can't fix in the classroom but directly impact their ability to perform in the classroom? 

John Barge: Sure. And that that is a very valid question. And just from my own perspective, I can tell you I was one of those kids just so that folks understand that I'm not a cold-hearted superintendent kind of person. You know, I was raised in a large home with an alcoholic dad who was abusive and we were poor. We ate free lunch. I started work when I was nine years old, so I didn't have to eat free lunch. But you know, most of the people that I knew adult-wise at school didn't know what was going on in my home life. 

You know, we were just of a generation where you didn't share that, but there were teachers who knew that I had potential. I was a first-generation college graduate. They took, they took interest in me. They made sure that I was in the more challenging classes. They had opportunities. And that was what I learned. I learned that when I went to school, I had the same opportunity as everybody else to learn and to do and to take with. My teachers were giving me a go as far as I wanted to go with it. That was my choice. So, I think I think any teachers have done that for decades. 

Teachers have always done that. Not all teachers, but thankfully I had some that did. you can't legislate morality in anybody. So I think just making sure that teachers have an understanding of these issues that children deal with. And you know, I used to do some training in trauma-informed learning and making sure teachers knew how to spot trauma and students who were potentially dealing with some of these issues that maybe weren't communicating it and referred them to the counselors at school and, you know, be able to get them to the right places. 

That's getting back to what I was talking about earlier. We can't expect teachers to be those counselors and those nurses and all those types of things, but we need to make sure they can make and see those things and then refer them to the right people.

Christie Diez: Let's talk violence in schools. Fights are on the rise, and I sat down with the D.A. in Fulton County who argues that much of the gang violence can be stemmed from fights in schools and it's stealing our children. That is a quote from her and argues that most crime happens in kids between the ages of 13 and 25, which is very much a school-age child. How do you combat violence in schools? 

John Barge: Well, I think we need to make sure that our schools have the resources to deal with that, whether it's our school resource officers or things of that nature. I think that one thing that we have learned from the pandemic is that we have options with virtual learning that if children are not going to behave in school, maybe we take advantage of virtual learning. 

We can't let those that are who are bound and determined to disrupt whether it's causing fights or whatnot. The education for the 90%, 95% that are left in the school that, you know, we have other ways of educating if that's necessary. So I think making sure that children know that, that your education is, it is a right. But you know, we have other ways of providing it. 

So if you're not going to behave in school, we might have to find another way to provide you services.

Christie Diez: What about discipline? How do you discipline a child who may be getting into some trouble for fighting or violence without criminalizing them and changing the course of their life before their brain is even fully-formed? 

John Barge: Well, that's going to take a lot of work with the parents and making sure that the parents are really on their end, supporting you as a school and making sure they're holding your children accountable at home as well. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn't. But, you know, I think, again, making sure that we can connect children to resources where they can learn how to deal with their issues. If it's anger issues or whatever, that we can help them through those issues. 

But we have to make sure that we have, you know, if you're talking about a school of a thousand students, you can't let a handful disrupt the education for the majority. And so we need to make sure that most schools have policies in place. Some of them have zero-tolerance policies, let's say, when it comes to fighting. I don't support zero-tolerance policies with fighting words. No, you strike somebody and you're arrested, I don't agree with that. I don't support that. 

So I think we do need to make sure that our discipline policies are in place. They're clear, students understand them, and we enforce them fairly. You know, we don't treat different students differently for committing the same offenses. You know, that's problematic. But again, making sure that we also have resources that connect children to them in order to help them deal with some of the issues that might be underlying their behavior because it could be something like trauma. 

You know, trauma physiologically does things to the brain. It's helpful for teachers to understand that because there may be times where a student's disruption is not necessarily because they're just a bad kid, so to speak, it could be a reaction to a traumatic experience that they have. They have dealt with and the way that children's brains develop, it has changed and their trauma has changed the way that that brain functions. And so it's helpful to be able to get them connected to resources to help them get through those traumatic experiences.

Christie Diez: Teachers can carry guns in the classrooms if the local school boards, authorize it. Do you support that or agree with that policy or not? 

John Barge: I do, absolutely do.

Christie Diez: Tell me why. 

John Barge: Because again, I'm going to take it from my perspective, if I'm a principal of a school and I've got somebody that is intending to do harm to the children in my school or to my teachers, I want to be able to deal with that issue and not have children die waiting on a response from. I mean, not saying anything about the response from the police force or first responders or anything like that. I mean, children can die in seconds when somebody has that intention and it may take those first responders a few minutes to get there. 

So I think having that ability and even people knowing that is an option in a school and that there could be specific people there who are armed and are able to protect that school can dissuade people from trying to do harm at that particular site. I do think it's important the way that the law is written that whoever is carrying a weapon in that school is properly trained and approved by the school board, and they have all of the appropriate training to handle that weapon. So, I do support it and I think it has merit.

Christie Diez: Let's talk about standardized testing. That has changed a lot over the past couple of years, partially because of the pandemic, but there's also been a larger conversation about how much emphasis those test results should really have on whether a child moves to the next grade or not. What do you think about the state of testing in Georgia and should any changes be made? 

John Barge: Well, I have always believed that we tested too much, and a lot of folks don't understand that. That testing comes as a directive from the federal government. Some of it in Georgia came from the state government as well. But the federal government requires every state to have an accountability system that came through initially like No Child Left Behind, and the state now has a waiver from that. But it does not mean that we can't test. 

The expectations from the Feds are still there, that we test every child in reading and math at every grade level, grades three through eight, and once in high school before they graduate. Now, where the state of Georgia went beyond that was the state of Georgia required every grade level three through eight reading, math, science and social studies. And then we have the state end-of-course tests. There are eight of those. And then we had the high school graduation test that actually my administration, the state board, we phased out when I was state superintendent. So, we don't have the graduation test anymore, which was an additional five tests on top of the eight end-of-course tests in high school. I've always argued when I was state superintendent. 

Previously, I was on the Council of Chief State School Officers and met fairly regularly with the U.S. Department of Education and would argue for and support this testing that they mandate once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school, and maybe what we call the gateway year. 

So test a student in fifth grade with this standardized test to see what they've learned in elementary school, test them in eighth grade, test them once in high school, but allow the states to do their own monitoring in between to make sure students are progressing at the rate that they need to be progressing, to make sure that they are on grade level. But the high-stakes nature of it and tying it to accountability, has it really created a significant number of issues? Do I think we need some level of accountability? Absolutely. Do I think because we pendulum swings so much in education, do I think we went overboard with accountability? Yes. And I think we can pull back on some of that standardized testing. You don't get rid of it. 

You've got to make sure you know where your students are. But then you've got to allow folks the time and the resources to make sure that kids are getting where they need to be. But testing every year is a nightmare.

Christie Diez: Before you can even get to the general election, you have to go through the incumbent right now. Mr. Richard Woods, he has been a two-term superintendent, now running for a third. You guys have similar principles. If you had to explain to the voters, why choose you over him? 

John Barge: Leadership experience and actual results, proven results. The incumbent, in my opinion, has failed to lead on these issues that school districts are facing. Again, I was a local superintendent for five years under his administration. I can vouch for that. There has been no leadership to guide local school districts in the state of Georgia in dealing with the issues that they face. I don't think that you know, results-wise, again, our students' fourth and eighth grade reading in fourth grade: 14-year low. Eighth grade: eight-year low. 

You know about the only thing that he speaks on when he campaigns, aside from attacking me and tying me to bringing the common core to Georgia, which he knows is wrong because that was Cathy Cox and Governor Perdue who brought that in, and he actually ran the same year than I did when I won. And had he won that year, he would have been in the same position I was. He would have inherited that from the previous administration. So he knows that. And but he can't run on his record because the only thing that he can tout is career pathways, which is something that our administration put in before he was ever there. 

Back in 2010, when he was running, he linked career pathways to Common Core and he didn't support them, and that was his way to differentiate himself from me. But now that he's there and he sees the success of career pathways, he touts that. But you know, I have a 30-year proven history in education. He retired after twenty-four years in education. That typically doesn't happen unless there's a problem. 

And so, you know. I don't know what the issues were behind there, but we were in a much different place when I was state superintendent as far as our NAEP scores in 2012. We were the only state in the entire country that saw gains on every single test that's administered in every state in the country and SAT scores, ACT scores, NAEP scores, advanced placement scores. All of them rose. We ranked 12th in the nation in advanced-placement test scores of our students, passing AP exams and earning college credit. We're now 15th. 

Our African American students ranked second in the nation in passing AP exams. Then don't even report that now, so I don't know where we rank on that. The proven results are there where we are now. He can tout increased graduation rates, but that's directly related back to the elimination of the Georgia High School graduation exam.

Christie Diez: If you win the primary, then you'll be going up against one of the Democratic challengers. What would you say to critics who say, ‘Thank you for your service. You've done a lot for the educational system. You've been superintendent before, you've been a local superintendent, but time for some fresh new blood and new ideas’?

John Barge: I would say, look, look at them again. Look at the results. And are you willing -- in this time -- are you willing to gamble on an unproven person that has no experience in education whatsoever to lead education in this controversial time? Critical time where we are behind very behind, we don't even know how far behind because we haven't taken a single test since the pandemic hit. 

The measure where students are, so we know we were significantly behind in 2019. We're going to be significantly further behind when whenever the aid is administered again. So, you know, I personally don't think it's time to gamble. I think it's time to go with someone who has a proven history of raising student achievement. And let's get kids back to where they need to be.

Christie Diez: What's your biggest goal? What's your mission if you become superintendent? What do you really want to focus on? 

John Barge: I want to focus on getting us back to what our core mission is and getting stuff off of teachers' plates that we put on there for the last 30, 40 years of the expectations of them basically to raise children. That's not what they ought to do. That's not what they're trained to do. 

So we can if we can get all of that off the plates of teachers and we can focus them and their efforts, and we can get the resources into their hands to teach children what they've been trained to teach. Then I think we can close the gaps we've experienced during the pandemic and get kids back on the right track so that kids can actually solve problems, think and get through. And I'm not saying kids, that's a broad brush. 

I won’t say that kids can't solve problems, but we need to make sure that we're equipping our kids to be prepared to be successful. And I just don't think that we're there right now. I think we're distracted by a lot of other things. And if we can refocus and bring the attention back, I think that will be good for us to get our kids.

Christie Diez: Mr. Barge, I really appreciate your time. Thanks for giving me so much time to answer these questions this morning. This is really going to help the voters. Is there anything we didn't discuss important to you that you think should be discussed? 

John Barge: You've had a lot of topics, so. I think I think you pretty much covered it.


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