Georgia Voters Face a High-Stakes Test

Elections are underway in Georgia. While Senator Warnock fights to represent Georgia in Congress and hundreds of state legislators wait for polls to close on November 8th, voters are also choosing between candidates for statewide executive offices like Governor, Attorney General, and Labor Commissioner. One race, however, demands special attention.

Alisha Thomas Searcy is the Democratic nominee for State Schools Superintendent. But you might not know it, because she’s been left off of the Democrats’ “One Georgia” slate and campaign literature. She’s even made public posts on social media complaining about the other Democratic nominees. Beyond intra-party politics, teachers’ organizations like the Georgia Association of Educators have even endorsed her Republican opponent over her. So what’s going on with Ms. Searcy?

Searcy and Charter Schools

Searcy proudly displays on her website that she is “working to create an educational system where parents feel empowered, and educators feel supported.” While this is a fine sentiment on the surface, “empowering parents” is too often a dog-whistle for pro-corporate “educational reform” like privatizing public schools, giving public funding to charters and vouchers to private schools, and replacing elected school boards with privately-owned, unaccountable companies. Digging deeper into Searcy’s experience as an “educational leader” gives weight to such concerns for supporters of public education. 

A well-resourced public school creates wide-ranging positive effects in a community. By providing quality education, meals, after-school extra-curriculars, public meeting spaces, and stronger links between residents and local governments, public schools benefit both children and adults through their programs and resources. Public schools must provide free and adequate education to every child, regardless of financial, transportation, or ability needs. Public schools are also one of the most consistent and universal employers in the country, and they exist in every county. In short, public schools are the anchor of a local community, and help to ensure everyone gets what they need.

So when Atlanta’s wealthiest, such as millionaire real estate developer Tom Cousins, advocate for tearing down public schools and replacing them with privately-managed charters which suck up public funding, there’s a reason. Such a move presents countless opportunities for big money to remake a neighborhood from the ground up. Charter schools are popular with the real estate industry as they jack up property prices. This is why charter school allies and lobbyists are funded with millions of dollars of industry money, and why many charter school management organizations share headquarters with big property management firms.

So what does all of this have to do with Searcy’s challenge for Superintendent? In her time as a state legislator, Searcy co-authored a state constitutional amendment to revive the State Charter Schools Commission, which was previously ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court. Aside from offering a way for charter school lobbyists to side-step locally elected school boards for approval, this Commission has the authority to deduct money from school district budgets. In short, it’s a great way for the rich and powerful to ignore a community’s representatives through insider politics.

Searcy also claims to have experience as an “educational leader”, but not in the classroom or even in a public school setting. Instead, her website states she was the administrative director of Ivy Preparatory Academy. An op-ed by Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Russell Edwards digs into some of the controversies surrounding her tenure there, including her overseeing of mid-semester teacher layoffs and the conflict of interest inherent in the school’s hiring of her. Beyond her own record, her involvement in the charter network’s administration shows her disregard for the larger communities in which a school is rooted. For instance, developer Tom Cousins helped kick off Atlanta’s charter movement through wholesale replacement of the East Lake community. As he billed the new Drew Charter school as the key to neighborhood improvement, he used public funding allocated to his development firm to replace subsidized housing with market-rate developments and evict hundreds of long-time residents. Cousins fell short of “revitalizing” East Lake – instead he uprooted many of its residents and tore down its schools.

If Searcy can’t understand how evictions and layoffs harm students and communities, how can she claim to understand what teachers and students need to succeed?

Now more than ever, with media stoking panic around falling test scores in the wake of the COVID pandemic, some candidates are looking for more ways to undermine public education. “Parents’ rights” advocacy, anti-trans legislation, and censorship of history and literature have become common in right-wing attacks on schools. For instance, incumbent Republican Superintendent Woods has used and supported anti-mask and “divisive concept” laws to limit how teachers and districts can protect students. Unfortunately, Searcy is no better; her history shows that she would actively work to upend our state school system by privatizing many communities’ last bastion of social services.

Defending Public Schooling and Public Funding

This year’s Democratic challenger for State Superintendent falls far short of what the people of Georgia need in a leader for public education. Instead of a pro-corporate candidate who favors defunding universal public schools and replacing them with unaccountable privately-managed charters, we deserve a candidate who will stand up for students and working families. Defending working families means supporting the right to collectively bargain and strike for hundreds of thousands of Georgia’s public servants, including teachers. It means fighting to restore and expand state and local funding for public schools, instead of cutting from schools to give tax breaks to real estate and entertainment industry giants. We need a candidate who will stand up to corporate takeover of our school system and start to repatriate charter schools that are already dependent on public funds back to public control.

Searcy’s inability to secure an endorsement from Georgia teachers speaks to how far-removed her campaign priorities are from the needs of students and teachers. Her championing of school privatization is so extreme, she’s even managed to alienate mainstream liberals this election season, with Stacey Abrams and other Democrats refusing to make appearances with her on the campaign trail. If Searcy’s Republican opponent sweeps the ballot box this November, she has no one but herself and her own record to blame.

Working people have a long fight ahead of us to defend and expand public education in Georgia in the months and years to come. In order to take our schools back into public hands, we’ll need to do more than just vote against Republicans: we’ll need to establish public sector bargaining rights, rebuild teachers’ unions, and unite students, teachers, and working families to confront and defeat the bipartisan charter lobby. If you’re a student, teacher, or community member, start those organizing conversations! Join your local teacher’s union, student organization, or DSA! If we fight together, we can win.

Note: information esp. about Tom Cousins and the history of Atlanta’s charter school fight came from “None of the Above” by Anna Simonson and Shani Robinson