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Meet the candidates hoping to run Georgia schools | James Morrow, Jr.

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 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 fifth interview, classroom teacher James Morrow, Jr. sat down with 11Alive's Christie Diez to discuss the biggest challenges facing Georgia schools.

Christie Diez: Introduce yourself to Georgia voters. Who is James Morrow? 

James Morrow, Jr.: I've been a teacher for the past 25 years and I'm also a coach. In addition to that, I'm the regional director for the Association of Professional Educators located here in Atlanta. I just enjoy what I do. My mother was a teacher and a coach for 39 years in Arkansas and my aunt was my business teacher. My uncle was one of my teachers and my football coach. So I grew up around a lot of educators, and so I sympathize with a lot of the things that they have to go through on a regular basis daily.

Christie Diez: You mentioned you're in the classroom. What topic do you teach? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, currently physical education but before that, I taught advanced placement United States history, advanced placement human geography, economics, world history and American government. But my principal, she did me a real solid by allowing me to teach physical education now, because for the past 25 years, I've been in the classroom, you know, in the trenches dealing with the students.

Christie Diez: What have you done in your role as a classroom teacher that would make you the strongest candidate to be state superintendent? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, as most of my students would tell you from the past and the present, Coach Morrow has a genuine concern for their well-being and he always wants them to be successful. But sometimes it's hard to do that with all of the discipline issues that occur, that take place inside of the schools.

Christie Diez: You know, there's such a desperate need for teachers right now. Why not stay where you are and affect change at the local level inside the classroom? Why now run for state superintendent? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well,  I can only reach a certain amount of students, the ones that I'm close to. But as I told you previously, I'm in the trenches and I understand a lot of teachers are mentally, physically, verbally and emotionally abused by students, by parents and sometimes by administrators. So, I feel like this is an opportunity for me to speak up and let everybody know what actually goes on in the schools. Unlike most of the other candidates, they're really speaking about what they've heard or what somebody told them, but I'm actually right there on the front line and I can give a clear explanation of what's going on and what I feel needs to be fixed.

Christie Diez: Some people might recognize your name from a story, I think it was back in 2014 when you blew the whistle on illegal recruiting. We never quite got a follow-up. I'm not sure we ever knew what happened to that legal case. 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, I can't really speak on the legal aspect of it. But you know, the situation was that a couple of my players were illegally recruited and they posted some comments on Instagram. I want to say on Twitter that they were transferring and that they had been recruited. So, when I brought it to the attention of the appropriate people, they got mad and they fired me from my coaching position. So, I hired Mr. Eugene Felton as my attorney and he went to work.

Christie Diez: If you can't talk about it, does that mean it's still going through the court system in 2022? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, no, it's been, it's done. But I just, I signed an agreement that I really couldn't discuss.

Christie Diez: Got it, OK, like a nondisclosure? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Yes, ma'am.

Christie Diez: You also ran for State Senate in 2016. You ran for the House in 2018. Your opponents ended up winning those races, but you campaigned on improving and overhauling the state's educational system and developing mentoring programs. What would be your focus as state superintendent? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well you know, especially in the smaller rural areas, I don't feel those kids get an opportunity. I come from a small rural area. In Arkansas, the population was about fifteen hundred, and a lot of opportunities weren't offered to those students, so I want to make sure that those kids get a fair opportunity just as the ones located in the metro Atlanta area. A lot of times they're neglected and forgotten about. So, those are one of the things that I would like to do.

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

James Morrow, Jr.: I'm a people's person, you know, and I know how to interact and communicate with people without showing hostility or anger, even though I may feel it in my head, I won't really speak on it. You know, I always stay calm and keep my composure at all times. So, I mean, I feel like I can work well with anyone.

Christie Diez: If you are the superintendent, you would be in charge of 2,300 schools in Georgia. You'll be in charge of all of them. That includes districts that are in very rural areas, also very urban areas, and each one has different philosophies and different needs. How do you make decisions for all of them knowing that they each have different needs? 

James Morrow, Jr.: You really can't make decisions for them. The local school districts are the ones that create the policy and everything. But you just make sure that as far as wherever the school board of the state implements, you just make sure that it's enforced. But I really can't lay down any laws, you know, but I can make suggestions to them as far as what they need to do in order for their school district to be successful. 

But safety would be one of the things that we really need to work on in the schools. You know, now is the time school has evolved. It's not the school that you remember. Now you can basically find any type of drugs. Kids bring guns, knives, they have sex in schools. So, you know, we've got to have some type of programs to discourage this type of behavior in the schools because they are allowed to get away with it too much.

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

James Morrow, Jr.: The fact that kids are just pushed through and they actually don't earn the grades they receive. Like, with COVID, that put the education system like two and a half years behind because most of the kids were doing virtual. I taught virtual AP Human Geography, and you know, they'll answer roll and then turn their camera off. They won't to turn it back on. They will never turn in assignments and it was like, 'you're at home in the bed.' You know, what is the excuse? 

I felt like virtual was pretty easy. I mean, you can basically cheat without anybody knowing because you could go to Google to look up the answers for your tests and things like that. A lot of kids can take advantage of virtual. But now, if virtual was to continue, I would feel like it should be used as a tool for discipline. Like the kids that have chronic behavior problems, then virtual would probably be the best place for them.

Christie Diez: Well, speaking of virtual learning, we just faced a pandemic. In fact, we're still in it and in several ways. What was the biggest lesson you learned about education through the COVID pandemic? 

James Morrow, Jr.: The biggest lesson I learned was that it put the kids behind farther than what they already were. When I taught middle school, basically teachers were encouraged to give students 50 percent -- this is before COVID -- 50 percent just for putting their name on a paper. You know, I would ask, what's the rationale behind that? I would always question and they would say, 'Well, whenever little Johnny decides to do some work, he won't be that far behind.' But my thing was, when they get out of society and become adults, they're not going to receive a full paycheck for doing half of the work. 

So to me, it feels like we're setting some of these kids up for failure by allowing them to constantly just pass. Like, when I was teaching AP human geography, these are like ninth and tenth graders. Most of those students, their Lexile score was like a 300-400, which meant they were reading on a 3rd level. So, you know my question, how did they make it to 9th and 10th grade if they're reading on a 3rd and 4th-grade level?

Christie Diez: What is your position on masks in schools now and moving forward as we combat these new variants?

James Morrow, Jr.: Like I said, I'm there. So when we first started, you know, it was like mandatory to wear a mask, but when Governor Kemp loosened up on that mandate, many of the students don't wear them. I asked them to wear them when they come around me or keep their distance, you know. I have one class and my physical education class, I have about 58 students. 

So, you know, it's kind of hard to distance yourself when you have that many students in your class. And then some of the regular classes they might have like 35 or 40 students. So again, it's hard to distance yourself when you have that many students in the class, and that's basically coming from a shortage of teachers. You know, you don't have enough teachers, so you pile them in the best you can.

Christie Diez: So do you believe it should be mandated or do you believe it should be a choice? 

James Morrow, Jr.: I believe it should be a choice. I mean, if you don't want to wear it, that's you, you know. If you don't want to be vaccinated, that's you. I have been vaccinated and I've had the booster, but you know, I feel like people have the right to make their own decision when it comes to their body.

Christie Diez: What about vaccine mandates? There is legislation going through the Georgia Legislature right now that would ban vaccines in school. It was rewritten recently to ban the COVID vaccine only. What's your position on that legislation and vaccine mandates in general?

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, whatever the senators and the state representatives, whatever they vote on and it goes forward, then, of course, I would have to go along with it. I really don't have a voice as far as if it goes through or not, but if they decide that's something that needs to be done, then I would have to enforce it.

Christie Diez: But do you agree with it? Do you think it should be enforced? Do you believe there should be a ban on the COVID vaccine? 

James Morrow, Jr.: No, I do not. I believe people should be able to get it if they want to have it. They should be able to have it.

Christie Diez: Do you believe it should be mandated for kids to have the COVID vaccine if they go to school? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Not if their parents don't want them to have it, no. You know, that's their child. If a kid becomes ill after taking it or not taking it or whatever, then the parents are gonna have to deal with it, not the school district. The school district is not going to pay that child's hospital bill or any other medical bills they might incur because of taking it or not taking it.

Christie Diez: Do you think the pandemic created an educational gap that we'll be seeing and facing for years to come? And if so, how do you think it affects our future workforce? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Most definitely, it's going to affect it. Most definitely it's bad and most definitely going to affect our future workforce because many of the students, you know, some things they can't [do]. Like, they can't write their signature. They don't know how to sign a document. Everything is printed. I feel like the lack of education some of them receive is going to be hard for them to be productive citizens in a global society. Not even just a global society, but a local society. So yeah, it's going to be pretty bad.

Christie Diez: How do we close that gap? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, many times school districts may offer after school tutoring, you know, tutoring during their planning period, but many of the students, they don't show up. They pay me, I want to say $30 an hour to tutor students at the school, and it was open to all social studies students because at the time I taught all social studies classes, economics, U.S. history, government, all of that. Maybe three students took advantage of it. 

Then you would call their parents and most of the time they would say they didn't have transportation to pick their child up hours after school were out. So, you know, hopefully we'll be able to find some money where we could pay for that if it came to that. But we have to do extra if we want to catch up and the parents are going to have to do their part too, you know. The teachers can't do everything. We can teach and encourage and motivate, but we can't raise and discipline your child. And a lot of times, that's what's going on in the schools. We have to stop class to discipline a child because of chronic misbehavior in the classroom.

Christie Diez: You know, it seems like there is a widespread burnout happening right now. Teachers are burned out, families are burned out, even the students are burned out. How do you combat that burnout feeling and how do you keep incentivizing good educators to enter this field? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, as far as the burnout, you know, that comes with a lot of work. Teachers have a hard time just getting up going to work every day, especially with the pandemic. And then you have students that curse you out and disrespect you and disrespect the custodians, the cafeteria workers. So, you know, one of the things we're going to have to work on, as I said previously, was discipline and the students having respect. And what was the second part is you asking me?

Christie Diez: How do you keep incentivizing good educators to enter this field as we're experiencing such a teacher shortage?

James Morrow, Jr.: That's going to be hard to do because, you know, right now nobody's kicking down any doors to become a teacher. When I started teaching in 1997, the profession was like kind of basically taking off. I can recall my first salary was like $29,500 and I was happy to get it. But now you have a lot of teachers, you know, that take-home pay is approximately around $2,400 a month, and the rent is possibly two thousand, so in order for them to survive, they have to have a roommate or continue to live at home with their parents. So, you know, it's kind of hard to encourage somebody to go in this profession when they wouldn't make the money they would make doing or working somewhere else. But as far as bonuses like, I think we were just approved for a $2000 bonus which, you know, after they tax it, we will probably receive about $1,400 of that $2,000. If we are going to receive a bonus for teachers, I feel like it should be tax-free. And you know, it shouldn't be a tax attached to it.

Christie Diez: You are entering the race for the top educational leadership position in what is arguably one of the most controversial times in education aspects, especially over educational content and schools. One of those hot-button issues that is lighting up school board meetings across the country is critical race theory. What is your position on critical race theory? Should it be taught in schools? And is there an age at which it's appropriate? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, at no time should anything be taught in schools where it would encourage racism or would make a certain race of students feel guilty about things that happened in the past, but at the same time, you know, some things need to be taught. But I would encourage critical race theory. Racism has always been a normalized feature in American society, you know? And that's because you and I both know that racism still occurs. When you look at the standards, I've taught AP United States history. 

A lot of things are basically taught in the standards of the curriculum right now. But I guess it just depends on the tone of the teacher and how they teach it. But you know, a lot of these things are discussed in United States history standards, Georgia standards currently because I talk about them. But, you know, I would say nobody should be villainized based on the things they ancestors did in the past. I mean, the generation currently now they can't be blamed for what their ancestors did. But at the same time, it needs to be known it happened. I wouldn't encourage anything where it makes anybody feel like they're wrong based on what their ancestors did.

Christie Diez: Let's talk about the equity conversation. Many districts are hiring diversity, equity and inclusion officers or administrators, or creating DEI offices within the district. What place do you believe that has in schools? 

James Morrow, Jr.: I believe it's good, because, you know, everything helps. A lot of times, whenever the budgets are cut by legislation, or you know the wind blows wrong, the first thing that's cut is education. So you know, anything that they can bring to the table that would benefit the students, the teachers and the school districts, I would encourage as long as it's positive.

Christie Diez: Let's talk about violence now. There was a recent study that said a third of teachers surveyed in the classroom said they experienced at least one threat or incident of violence, which is up and is concerning. How do you deal with an escalating concern for many teachers regarding violence? And how do you discipline children without criminalizing them before their brain is even fully-formed? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, as far as the discipline and threats to teachers, being the regional director of the Association for Teachers, I hear a lot of horror stories. One lady told me that she was walking to her car and a student told her, 'I see your car. I'm going to follow you home. I know where you live and I'm going to f-you up.' And when she brought that to the attention of the administrator, the administration's response was like, 'Oh, he was just playing.' We have to take threats like that more seriously. And I feel like if a student says that to a teacher, there should be consequences immediately instead of just brushing it off. A lot of times when threats occur, they're basically just brushed off because, you know, most issues want to protect their statistics as far as when it comes to being a safe school.

Christie Diez: So what would be your plan for curbing those threats or disciplining in that moment? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, hopefully if I'm elected, you know, I would try to place metal detectors at every entrance the students enter. As far as school resource officers, if you have 1,500 students, for every 500 students, you should have a resource officer. So if there's 1,500 students in the school, there should be like three resource officers. We would need somebody monitoring in the parking lots. Have somebody running around in a golf cart in the parking lots because a lot of times students leave campus and come back and you really don't know what they're bringing back on campus. 

So, you know, a lot of things could be curbed if you'd be proactive and take care of it before it happens instead of waiting until it happens, then you want to do something then. Random drug searches. When I taught in Vegas -- because I taught in Las Vegas and Little Rock -- they would have the students leave their bags in the classroom stand out in the hallway and they would bring the dogs through. So, you know, if you do things like that, you would discourage a lot of violence and a lot of the drugs and things that take place. Also, I would want to have some type of anger management class for the students that are chronic behaviors or constantly threatening teachers and students.

Christie Diez: Teachers can carry guns in the classroom if their local school board authorizes it. Do you agree with that policy or not? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, if the local school board authorized it, then you know, I really can't do too much, but I wouldn't agree with it because a lot of times, you know, these kids get under your skin, and if you hadn't been trained properly, you might pull out your gun and shoot them. That's something you have to look at because a lot of times kids, they want to put their hands on teachers. Kids can basically curse teachers out, disrespect them, and call them all types of names, and you really can't do anything to them. But if you say anything out of the ordinary, then basically you're suspended 30 days without pay. 

I have a friend and he broke up a fight and was told he used too much force and he was suspended 30 days without pay. And then a year later, he did it again. You know, I guess it's just in him to try to break up fights when you see students fighting. He was suspended again this time 45 days without pay. So a lot of times parents, you know, they see a video, a teacher is just standing around and not intervening in the fight because the teacher doesn't want to get suspended and lose their livelihood for trying to protect the child. So I mean, it's like a catch 22. You do it and you're in trouble, you don't do it and you possibly still in trouble. So I mean, it's a lot of factors that need to be discussed in order to fix this.

Christie Diez: Let's talk budget now. Education is constantly facing budget constraints. Teachers are constantly reaching into their own pockets to get basic supplies for their classrooms. How do you work to take some of that burden off the teachers and make sure that education has the funding it needs? 

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, QBE. Quality Basic Education Act. It needs to be revamped. The last time they did something to it was 1985. I was in the fifth grade. I'm 47 now. I feel like the legislators need to go back and revamp that and then bring more money. We can have more money in order to do things with the schools. I would start with the legislation, because they're the ones that have the power to do that.

Christie Diez: Children seem to be facing larger burdens outside of the classroom now, perhaps more than ever before, things that the classroom can't necessarily fix like poverty, instability, and connectivity issues. But how do you work to help children overcome those obstacles, even if you can't fix it because it does directly impact their ability to perform in school? 

James Morrow, Jr.: We need to have more after-school and mentoring programs with older ladies, not necessarily older but more mature ladies dealing with the young ladies and you know, something for the men. A lot of people are willing to do it. We just got to reach out to them and ask them to do it. At the school I teach at, we [have] something called Jonesboro Dads where the dads come through and they mentor the young men at my school. So that's one way we would be able to fix it. 

You know, it has to be incorporated and the parents will have to be on board. But a lot of times the kids have adult problems. Being a coach, you know, I have my student-athletes tell me 'Coach, I can't come to practice today. I have to babysit my little brother or little sister because my mom works the graveyard shift tonight.' It's just a lot of these kids, they have problems, not all over, but, you know, in certain areas, especially areas of poverty, where their parents have to work or it's a single-parent household. And basically, the older child is the one that's raising the younger children.

Christie Diez: How important is testing in Georgia? And what do you think of the state of testing? Should anything be changed? 

James Morrow, Jr.: A lot of times with the test, basically it's like something from the federal government when they want to have testing to see what has that child learned during that time period while they were in school. A lot of times I feel like, you know, teachers are forced to teach to the test instead of just teaching basic, simple things about life.

I feel like everybody is not meant for college. Certain vocational skills should be incorporated in the schools. Like, I would like to see something where, you know, when a kid graduates, they have their CDL license so they can go ahead and start working for a trucking company. Or when a young lady finishes cosmetology class or completes the program, she'll be able to have a license to do hair and things of that nature. Because like I said, everybody's not cut out for college, and a lot of these students are forced to take college-ready courses, and they already know that they're not going to go to college. So we need to do something to fix that as well.

Christie Diez: So before you can get to the general election, you have to go through the primary and you'll be facing several other Democratic challengers with similar ideals. What sets you apart from the pack? 

James Morrow, Jr.: I'm a teacher. I'm in the trenches. I'm on the frontline. I mean, if I wasn't a candidate and I'm looking at the candidates, you know, I would be like -- and no disrespect to any of them because I understand what they're trying to do and what they want to do -- but I've been in the education field. This is what I went to school for. I've been doing it for 25 years.

I think one of my opponents is a dentist, one is an attorney and one is a former state representative that heads a charter school. In my eyes, they really don't understand the problems, the issues and concerns that teachers deal with on a regular basis. I mean, if I'm a teacher, you know, [and there's] over 130,000 teachers in Georgia. If I'm a teacher, I'm voting for the person that understands what I'm going through and how I feel mentally and emotionally because I feel like that's the candidate that's going to do something and is going to get the job done because a lot of times people hide what's going on in the school district. 

Many school districts depend on the ignorance of parents and the fear of teachers not to call them to the carpet because most teachers live check to check and they can't afford to rock the boat without basically risking their job.

Christie Diez: So if you do become the Democratic candidate, then you'll be going up against a Republican who was either an incumbent, is the current superintendent or was a former superintendent. How do you combat that kind of experience? 

James Morrow, Jr.: With Richard Woods, he had close to eight years to get the job done. And I feel like he hasn't got the job done, so I don't feel like he deserves another four years. And as far as John Barge, he had the job and he resigned to run for governor. So he left the teachers and the students of Georgia hanging, in my opinion. So no, I wouldn't pick them either.

Christie Diez: James, thank you so much for your time this morning and answering all of these questions, is there anything that I didn't ask you about anything else you think is important that the voters know about you or what you would plan to do as superintendent? 

James Morrow, Jr.: I can speak about an example of a situation that happened to me because this is another thing that discourages people to stay in the education field. I was working in APS, Atlanta Public Schools, and I was the athletic director and head football, head basketball, and head track coach. And I told my principal that I wasn't feeling middle school anymore. The kids are very disrespectful and rude. I was going to take a job at a high school. And she became very upset that I told her that. At my last evaluation of the year, she gave me 11 needs improvement in physical education. At one point, she called me her shining star and I can do no wrong. But when I told her I wanted to leave, you know, she tried to block me and put me on a PDP, which is a professional development plan. That's what administrators do to teachers when they feel like teachers are not doing their job. 

But sometimes administrators use it as a threatening and punishment tool to keep you there. Or, if they don't like you, they use it to run you away. It just depends on how they feel about you. If I'm elected, if administrators continue to do that, then you know, I don't feel that they deserve to be administrators and they should go back to being teachers so they can feel and understand what teachers go through. This happens on a regular basis where administrators give teachers bad evaluations based on how they feel about them, rather than their performance as a classroom teacher in the classroom. So that's one thing that I would want to fix.

Christie Diez: It sounds like you say there's a lot going on behind the curtain, so to speak.

James Morrow, Jr.: Yes, yes, everything is coming up and a lot of school districts are not being transparent. You know, many teachers don't want to speak on it. I'll tell you this. If you were to create a hotline for teachers to be able to call and explain some of the situations that's going on in their school without having to let people know who they are, then I'm sure you have a lot of teachers to call and give you some very interesting horror stories about what's really going on in the schools, because the only reason they don't speak on it is that they don't want to lose their job. 

You know, and it's hard for teachers. In order for me to get my name on the ballot, I had to basically sacrifice three months worth of mortgage. You know, I always try to keep at least a year's worth of bills in advance in case I lose my job because being a teacher, it's not guaranteed you're going to have a job the following year. So, you know, I took three months worth of my mortgage to get my name on the ballot, so I made a sacrifice. Hopefully, the teachers who make the sacrifice and the voters and allow me to be the next Georgia state superintendent of schools.

Christie Diez: If you do become the next superintendent, how do you think that position will allow you to fix some of those behind the curtain problems that you know of going on?

James Morrow, Jr.: Well, I'll be able to call people to the carpet and put them on blast for the wrong things that they're doing. You know, and you guys, once I come to you and explain to you what's going on, you're going to put them on blast, too.