Alisha Thomas Searcy, Dem nominee for state school super, talks testing, CRT, funding and more

·29 min read

Jul. 2—MARIETTA — In a wide-ranging interview this week that touched on high-stakes testing, culture wars, teacher pay and school safety, the Marietta Daily Journal sat down with Alisha Thomas Searcy, the Democratic nominee for state school superintendent.

Searcy, a former Cobb state representative, won the nomination in May with 57% of the vote. In November, she will face incumbent Republican Richard Woods.

Searcy was born and raised in South Florida. She came to Atlanta to attend Spelman College. After graduating in 2000, she moved to Austell. Shortly thereafter, she was elected state representative for District 39 at the age of 23, the first African-American Georgia House member from Cobb County.

Under the Gold Dome, she helped pass legislation that made it easier for students to transfer schools within their district.

"Public school choice is a big thing for me, because I just believe that parents ought to have the freedom to choose a school that best meets the needs of their kids," Searcy said. "It came from really, constituents in my district, who wanted to have those options within Cobb County Schools."

Searcy also co-sponsored the state's constitutional amendment to create the state charter commission.

"Now, in 2022, we've got a number of state-commissioned charter schools that are opened because of that work ... Being a Black Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature, getting things done, whether it was for the (2009) flood victims, or whether it was within education, I'm very proud of being able to stand on a record of working in a bipartisan way to get things done on behalf of kids and families."

She served in the legislature from 2003 until 2014, when she decided to run for state school superintendent. Searcy, then known as Alisha Thomas Morgan, finished second in the Democratic primary.

Following that, she earned a master's in education leadership from Kennesaw State University and took superintendent training courses. She worked as superintendent of schools at Ivy Preparatory Academies, a network of three all-girls charter schools.

When she arrived at Ivy Prep, Searcy said the network's elementary school had a CCRPI score, a state metric used to evaluate schools, of 43. In her second year, it rose to 85.

Searcy also touted the fact that teacher retention at Ivy Prep went from 25% up to 75% during her tenure. The experience taught her about running Title I schools, hiring principals, retaining teachers and other management skills she didn't have when she first ran statewide.

"And so now, eight years later, I'm running again for state school superintendent with a very different perspective about the policy side of this, what it means to really run and lead schools, and especially in, I think, what are the most difficult times in our country and certainly within public education," Searcy said.

Searcy now runs an education consulting firm. She is married to Carlos Searcy, a retired state trooper. The couple lives in Marietta and attends Word of Faith Cathedral in Austell.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

MDJ: Why should voters pick you for state superintendent?

Alisha Thomas Searcy: Several reasons. First, this is one of the most critical times in public education in history, for a number of reasons. No. 1, teacher morale. Those who are on the frontlines of education are frustrated, they feel unheard. They don't have the resources they need. And we're asking teachers to do way too much for way too little money. And again, way too little resources, and they've not had a champion to stand up for them, to fight for them, to hear the challenges that they're facing, and to actually do something about them.

No. 2, I am arguably the most qualified candidate to run for state school superintendent in recent history. And going back to this, we talked about my background as a policymaker, believe it or not, there has not been a state school superintendent who's had the background of being a state legislator in recent history, and I'm talking at least 25 years. We've also not had a state superintendent candidate who has run schools before, running for state school superintendent, can you believe that? And so, the state school superintendent job is a policy-making job that requires you to work directly with the legislature, to have those strong relationships. ...

It's also important for the state school superintendent, as part of her job, to lead the Department of Education. And so if you have a candidate who's never led an institution before, you can only imagine the learning curve there. And perhaps that's why we're not seeing the kinds of programming, the kinds of support that districts need across the state.

I'm also a mom of three school-aged children, so I'm navigating public education every single day. And when you are living this experience, when you're having to make decisions about where they're going to go to school, are they going to be virtual, are they going to be in-person, are they going to opt out of the state test, who's their teacher, what kind of support do the teachers need, those are all things that parents who have children in schools are navigating every single day. And when you have that personal experience, you see things differently, you operate with a sense of urgency.

I'm also running for state school superintendent because, if you were to look at what schools looked like in the 1700s, and look at what schools look like today, it's exactly the same. ... You will see the teacher standing in front, all of the desks facing this way, in some classrooms in Georgia, you may or may not see a computer. But in this generation, again, when you have three kids at home, I understand that if we are going to lead the nation in public education, which is my vision for our schools, we can't keep delivering a telegram education to a TikTok generation. And that requires leadership. It requires vision. It requires a sense of urgency. It requires a very unique set of experiences. I'm a policymaker, a former superintendent, a mom, a businessperson, someone who has led institutions, and who has had a track record of turning schools around. ... And so those are the unique experiences that say that I am the person for this job. We have to have a person who matches the moment, whose experiences and background match the moment that we're in, in public education.

Q: What should the state be doing to remedy learning loss created by the pandemic?

A: So first, we have to acknowledge that there was already a significant gap before COVID. What we need to do about the learning loss now, is first and foremost, use the resources that districts have been given. Across the country, only 7% of funds have been used from CARES Act and ESSER funds.

Q: Why?

A: Good question. I would argue that in Georgia, it's probably because districts haven't had a lot of support on effective ways to spend those resources. Leadership matters. So what I believe needs to happen is we've got to assess individually where students are. Not a high-stakes test, but a localized assessment where we can see, where are students in terms of reading, where are they in terms of math, right? What are the skills that there are deficits in, and then provide that high dosage, individualized tutoring support to every student based on where they need it. And I don't think enough of that is happening across the state. We know what to do, we know what the research says, we absolutely have the resources. ...

Q: You're saying there's all this money that's going unspent. How do you incentivize or mandate them to spend it?

A: So, mandate is not the answer. But it's giving guidance. Every district is different, right? And so the role of the state school superintendent is to give a lot of guidance and support. It's to bring districts together who are doing this right, sharing those best practices across the state. It's creating a clearinghouse within the Department of Education that says, here's the research, here are the best practices, here are the programs that you can use, here's how you staff it, here are the supports that you can put in place to make sure that you have the right assessments, that you are analyzing the assessments properly. And here are the ways that you can deploy the resources that are available to you to meet the needs of students. I think this Department of Education has been more hands-off and said, 'We understand you're in challenging times, we're just going to let you be.' That's not leadership. Leadership is, 'I'm going to give you the resources, the guidance and the support, so that you don't have to try to figure this out by yourself.'

Q: It seems standardized testing changes every other year. What's your view of the Milestones and other standardized tests?

A: I think holding the state, school districts, schools, educators accountable is important. I think high-stakes testing is not the right accountability tool. All it does is stress everybody out. It stresses out districts. It stresses teachers out. I have a 15-year-old who attends a Cobb County school, and ever since I can remember, every year in April she comes home stressed out. Because the teachers are stressed. 'We have the Milestone coming. Mommy, if I don't pass, I'm not going to go to the next grade.'

Children should not carry that level of stress. And we are doing that to them as adults, because we're using high-stakes testing the wrong way. And if we even think about how it's implemented, students take the test in April, school is over in May, they don't get the results until after they've left the school. And then if you are moving to a new classroom, a new grade, a new school, there's no one that says, OK, based on these test scores, here are the supports that we're now going to provide to the student. Here are the supports we're now going to provide to the teacher who may need additional support, based on the test scores of her students.

And so the way we use high-stakes testing, you know, it's lagging ... it happens after the fact. We don't do anything with the information. So why are we giving this level of stress to educators and to parents? ...

The question is, what is the assessment that we're going to use? We have to assess, because we need to know that teachers are being effective, we have to know that students are learning, and you have to have some information to be able to determine the effectiveness of our education system. The way that we have implemented high-stakes testing across the country does not tell us any of those things. Especially in the last couple of years where we've had waivers. ... We're in the middle of, right now as a state, revamping English language arts and math curriculum. But we're still testing on standards that we passed several years ago.

Q: What is the assessment to use so that we know the kid does the assignment, learns it, and that the school is held accountable? And then the families moving in can know, what's the good school to send the kid to?

A: So we're talking about two types of assessments, right? You have your classroom assessments, where you have your quiz on the reading, or the unit test at the end of the semester. That absolutely has to happen. Again, that's a level of assessment.

When you're talking about more standardized assessments, there are some districts that are using MAP testing. So that's not high stakes, right? You take MAP tests three to four times a year, you take it at the beginning of the year, then you have benchmark assessments throughout the year, and then you take it one more time at the end. ...

So using MAP assessments, or some standardized tests like that, which is used across the country, I think is a better assessment to know how students and schools are doing. Because they're going to get all of that data using that kind of assessment, versus this state test that we've created that may or may not give us a real picture of what's happening in classrooms.

So again, it's not about not assessing, it's about the type of assessment and how we're using that information. I absolutely agree with you that Cobb is known in our state as one of the best school districts in our state. So when employers are relocating employees, Cobb and Gwinnett are the first two districts that they look at. Well, that's based on test scores. And so we can appreciate how those test scores are being used as information for families who are making decisions to know what's happening in the school district. But I will also say that a test score does not give a full picture of what's happening in a school or a school district. But again, it's important to assess and absolutely to hold educators accountable.

Q: The Georgia school board passed a resolution against critical race theory, the Cobb school board banned critical race theory and The 1619 Project. The legislature has passed a law banning the teaching of what they call divisive concepts, which includes certain beliefs about race. What's your position on all these steps taken by Republicans? Do you agree with the CRT ban, and why or why not?

A: I do not agree with the steps that have been taken by the state Board of Education, (the) Cobb County Board of Education, to involve themselves in what I would consider culture wars. If we look at the facts, we know that CRT is not taught in schools. Period.

What I can appreciate is, especially given where we are as a country, where we are politically, that we don't want ideology taught in our classrooms. What we want taught are the facts. More than 50%, I believe it's 53%, of the students who attend Georgia schools, look like me. And our education system ought to be a reflection of that. We ought to celebrate the diversity in our state and celebrate the experiences and the background of the students who come into our classrooms every day.

I think the moves that are anti-CRT are in opposition of that belief, and where I think we ought to be heading, in terms of our public education system. What I'm looking forward to when becoming state school superintendent, is being post- this election season, culture war season. Bringing people together across the aisle, who want to focus on empowering teachers to teach what they have been trying to teach, which are the facts of our history.

I don't know teachers who go in classrooms, and their main intention is to teach their ideology. That is just not what teachers get into teaching to do, and I don't think it's happening. So we have to empower them to know and to be supported, that they can do the things that we've asked them to do, that they've signed up to do, which is to teach. And then I think we have to leave the politics and all of the culture wars out of education.

I didn't mention this before, but it's another reason why I am running for state school superintendent — education should not be partisan. When children walk into classrooms they are not Democrat or Republican, they are kids who deserve to have a high quality public education. And when we depoliticize education, I believe that we can focus on preparing them to graduate from our high schools, which I believe, our schools ought to be the best in the country. And we have the potential to do that, we have the talent to do that. We just have to stop being distracted by these culture wars and other things that aren't actually happening in classrooms.

Q: We've received reports of increased fighting among students in local schools. Can you confirm that's the case here and elsewhere? If so, what do you think is causing that? And what's the solution?

A: It's absolutely the case. Anecdotally, it's what I hear all across the state, certainly a lot more in the metro area. And I'm concerned for a lot of reasons, obviously, the safety of the students, but also the safety of the teachers, and how teachers have to try to manage teaching and all the other things that are happening, plus managing the behaviors of students who are coming to school with a lot of issues.

I believe what's contributing to it is the effect of COVID. They have been out of school in many cases, for almost two years. Many students have forgotten the norms of how to operate in a public school system. So we've got to reteach, we've got to reset the norms about what school looks (like), feels like, operates like. We have to address mental health issues. We don't know what children have seen in the last two years from not being in school. What they've seen at home, in their communities, obviously what they've seen in social media, and in television, all of those things have an impact on the psyche, and what, as I call them, what our babies are coming to school with. ...

Q: Should transgender girls be allowed to compete with cisgender girls in high school athletics? Is that something that the government should be getting involved in, as it has here in Georgia?

A: I was disappointed by how the state chose to handle this issue. The legislature got itself involved and then essentially delegated this decision to the Georgia High School Association. A group of individuals that I saw in a photo, aren't necessarily reflective of the entire state of Georgia. I think this issue should be decided with people who are a part of the community, who are also in sports, who have expertise in this area. And I think where we are as a state right now, we've moved in the wrong direction.

Q: If you were in charge of the decision, what would you have done?

A: I would have brought LGBTQ organizations to the table. I would have brought sports education organizations to the table, and medical professionals, to help me figure out what is the most fair, just and inclusive way to ensure that all students have access to sports in our state. ... All I can say is that I would have handled it differently. I don't make decisions without having the information. Especially when it comes to fairness and justice and kids.

Q: Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, carried a bill last session that would have reformed the way accrediting companies operate in the wake of Cognia's botched review of the Cobb school system. Should Georgia create a new oversight agency charged with regulating accreditation firms to ensure they're accountable to the taxpayers who fund them?

A: I think it's an interesting idea. I didn't follow that particular bill. I think there's a role, obviously, for accrediting agencies. And absolutely, school boards need to be held accountable. Not just to voters, but also an education agency that understands governance, policy-making and the effectiveness of school boards. I think there's a broader conversation that we need to have about who ultimately holds school boards accountable, what they are held accountable by, and what the consequences are when they are not effective.

Again, as a parent, and as a voter, I want my school board to not get bogged down in racially divisive culture wars. I want them to focus on how we drive student achievement in our district. I want them to focus on making sure that we have the right policies in place that empower teachers and give them the resources that they need to be successful. I want them to effectively manage the superintendent. That's not happening across the state. And so I do think there's room for a conversation about accountability in school boards.

Q: What do you make of efforts at the local and state level to restrict reading materials, such as those that touch on themes of gender and sexuality?

A: I strongly believe that parents ought to have a strong role in the education of our children. And as people may or may not know, having access to curriculum and curriculum materials has always been the right of parents. So this Parents Bill of Rights ... the language that is in the bill was already in law. I think it's a part of this political effort to politicize education. I stand on the side of parents being empowered, knowing what's being taught in classrooms. I don't have a problem with that. I also believe, again, that we have to trust educators. We are people who have been prepared, we have trained, we have been taught, we have studied what needs to happen in classrooms.

What's unfortunate about many of these conversations is that educators have been left out. There were a group of educators who decided which materials would be used in our classrooms in Georgia and in school districts. That's the process that we have in place. And that's what we should continue to follow. Again, I talked earlier about being in the legislature, having the right intention, but not having experience as an educator. So now that I have that experience, I feel even stronger about the importance of having educators at the table making decisions about education. And I think we have missed the mark in that regard. And again, I believe that parents should be able to access, and if they have concerns about material, follow the processes now in the law to address those concerns.

Q: So who ultimately decides though? Say the educator believes there's certain books or materials that they should be taught ... but the parent says, 'I don't want my kids subjected to any of that.' Who decides in the end?

A: There are several people making decisions. One is the parent. If you believe that your child should not be taught, for example, health and the human body, then there are forms within the school system that you can opt out. That's current practice. And that is my point, that these things are already in place. So parents can decide right then and there that this is not something I want my child to learn. But again, educators ought to be the ones to decide what is culturally age-appropriate for the students to learn. There is not a classroom in the state of Georgia, where kindergarteners are learning about what it means to be LGBT, it's just not happening. At the same time, we should live in a world where we are inclusive. Where a student who is LGBT, in a high school, should be able to go to school in an environment where he or she is welcomed. Those two things should absolutely coexist in public education. And ultimately, if a parent decides, 'I don't want my child exposed to any of that,' that's why I believe that we ought to have options. Maybe public school is not the place for your child, if you don't believe that they should learn American history. That's why parents should have the freedom to make those choices.

Q: The Supreme Court recently ruled that religious schools can have public education dollars. Maine apparently knew this was coming, and so they preempted that by saying, 'OK, if they get those dollars, they can't discriminate against LGBT people.' As a result, the religious school said, 'OK, then we don't want the dollars.' Would you support Georgia creating a law like Maine to say you can take the dollars, but you can't discriminate against these certain minority groups?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: Because if you accept public dollars, then you cannot discriminate against people based on race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. And just like that private school, they can choose not to take those public dollars, and that's OK. But if you want public dollars, then you have to agree not to discriminate against people.

Q: Should Georgia be providing any public funding to private schools? And if so, what expectations come with that funding?

A: We do have a special needs voucher in Georgia. It's the only program that we have where private schools receive directly public dollars. And when I was in the legislature, I actually voted against the bill. Because at the time, I was very opposed to public dollars going to private institutions. Until you meet a mom who has a child with an individualized education plan, so they have special needs, who tried very hard to navigate within the public education system, but couldn't get services for their child. So for example, a kid with autism. Wherever they are on the spectrum, if we're honest, our public schools are just not equipped to handle children with significant disabilities like autism. And so, thank God for those private schools that have been set up, that their sole focus is to serve kids with special needs. And so that is one program that receives public dollars. It's an effective program. I think parents are very pleased with it. And they should continue to have that option available to them.

Q: So in Cobb, the district has become pretty reliant on SPLOST funding for its capital projects. Other funds are a mix of local property taxes and state and federal dollars. So what's your vision of how K-12 education should be funded?

A: So while we can acknowledge that (the Quality Basic Education formula) is outdated, I'm pleased to see that our legislature has fully funded QBE for the last three years. That's important to point out.

Secondly, I would say, as a whole, funding is not the problem in public education. Priorities are — how we spend those funds.

The third thing I would say is we still have a funding equity issue, because of the current formula and the way that we fund education. And again, when I became a superintendent, and my job was to look at our allotment sheets, which is how the state tells the districts how much money you're going to get based on the formula, it's by far one of the most complex formulas that you have to come to understand. And all you're trying to do is educate children. But instead you got to figure out how many segments do you have, so that you can hire this many teachers. Do you have enough students to earn enough to get an assistant principal? It's very, very complicated. Meanwhile, children are being negatively affected. ...

The fourth thing that I will say is when it comes to our QBE formula, we need to revamp it and focus more on funding students, rather than schools and school districts. As an example, Cobb County pays a great deal out in equalization grants. Board members have been frustrated about that for a very long time. But we have students in our district who are low-income, who need to have those resources, but we are paying out to other districts that are wealthy, actually. And so if we stop funding districts and instead focus on students and student need, I believe that we'll have a funding system that makes more sense. ...

And I will finally say when Gov. Nathan Deal was in office, there was a whole commission that focused on the funding formula. Strong recommendations, absolutely the right thing to do. I would revisit that commission and their recommendations. And finally be a superintendent that addresses the need to change QBE. And again, you got to have relationships in the legislature to be able to do that. I've served on the House Appropriations Committee, I served on the House Education Committee. These are the kinds of relationships and experience, and a track record of being able to get things done that are necessary to finally work on the most pressing issues in our education system.

Q: Since we're talking about money, how can the state help districts cope with the staffing shortages? We've had that with teachers, bus drivers. And with that, the governor gave every teacher a $5,000 raise. Stacey Abrams has said she wants to raise the minimum pay of teachers to $50,000. So in addition to that staffing thing, are teachers being paid enough? And if not, how much should they be paid?

A: Teachers are not being paid close to enough based on the work that they have to do. The things that we hold them responsible for, and the level of stress that they are expected to handle. ... We are internally doing the research to see how we could make $65,000 the starting salary for teachers across the state, including in rural areas, especially in rural areas. How do you pay for it? That's the question. When you're not in the legislature you don't have access to as much information as people who do, but that's what we're trying to research. What is the revenue stream that would pay for that without increasing taxes? But we know that, as a state, we have to honor, respect our teachers, and they need to be paid. I can't even say what they're worth, because they're worth more than that. They need to be paid more than a livable wage.

We have teachers in this state who work two or three jobs, that is not acceptable. But they're still doing it because they're called, because they love teaching. But we are hemorrhaging when it comes to keeping teachers in classrooms. So I believe that we have to revamp our entire compensation structure for teachers. I don't believe that we're going to keep teachers for 25 years anymore, that they're going to stay until retirement. I don't think that's the generation that we have. So we have to think differently about what their starting pay is, the three to five years that they're going to stay within the teaching profession. How do we continue to increase that pay? Those are the questions that we need to ponder. But where we are now, with teacher pay across the state is just unacceptable. ...

Q: Is there anything we haven't asked you that you want to say?

A: School safety, I'll just mention that that too, is a priority. It's why I'm doing these roundtables across the state. And while there certainly are things happening, like, Gov. Kemp has assembled a group of people in there, I think doing good work. From a parent perspective, from a local superintendent perspective, we've got to have the policies and practices that protect students.

And I'll just share real quick, the story of how I even started working on the school safety stuff. Lailah goes to a Cobb County school. May 25, the day after Uvalde, I'm like, 'You can stay home today if you want.' She said, 'No, I have a test, I need to go.' So I didn't push it.

So when she gets home, my husband and I are in the kitchen. I'm like, 'Hey, let's talk about your day.' She said 'Lots of talk about Uvalde, it's all over TikTok, everybody's talking about it.' I said, 'So how do you feel?' And she said, 'Nobody's gonna do anything. So we just do what we have to do.'

So she went on to say that she packs all of her books in her book bag in a way that all the hardest books are in the front. So if there is a shooting, then she has some level of protection. This is what children are having to do. And then for her to believe that nobody's going to do anything, was beyond me. So I'm on this mission to make sure that Lailah knows that I'm going to do something ...So my something is, let's convene local communities. The police chief, the superintendent or school board member, parents, mental health professionals, to talk about what actually needs to happen at the school and school district level.

The chief of police talked about how Cobb County is ready. If there's an incident, they're going in, they're not afraid. And we appreciate that. But what's on the prevention side? What are we doing on the mental health side? ...

Getting all these people at this table helped us to understand what actually needs to happen. So we're gathering all of this information, we're going to do one big paper with all these contributors, share that with school districts, whoever wants it. To me, that is what leadership is. Whether you have a title or not, you step up. And you want the public and in this case, young people, to know that I'm going to be a state school superintendent who will do something.