Bell seeks to bring fresh ideas to state superintendent office
by Jason Lowrey
Apr 20, 2014 | 1539 views | 0 0 comments | 42 42 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With the May 20 primary a month away, campaigns in all races are heating up. In the state school superintendent Republican primary, Ashley Bell believes he is at the front of the race.

“Well, I’ll tell you, we’ve been getting a phenomenal response. ... This last quarter we were the first in fundraising this last quarter. We’ve been receiving a lot of support financially and even in the polls from across the state. We think we’re in a great position to make the runoff,” he said.

Bell — chair of the Gainesville high school charter school, past chair of the middle school charter school and a former vice-chair of the Hall County Commission — is focusing his campaign on a combination of finding solutions to Common Core, improving relations with the governor’s office and assisting local school districts.

However, his reasons for getting into the race are the educational opportunities charter schools present to Georgia, Bell said.

“We’re on the cutting edge of some great opportunities to bring more local control when it comes to charter schools being public. ... This time next year every system is going to make a decision on what they want to do and I think that being a charter school chair and seeing how local control can mean so much in the lives of kids when it’s not just local bureaucrats, but local leaders who are in the positions to make change,” he said. “I think that having that perspective is what we need in Atlanta. I don’t think having another bureaucrat in that position who doesn’t understand the day-to-day challenges such as implementing Common Core, such as making sure teacher evaluations are fair to teachers and dealing with graduation rates.

“Those are three big-ticket items that I think in Atlanta may make sense to bureaucrats, but it’s not really being implemented correctly at the local level. ... I think bringing those local solutions to Atlanta, and helping enable other districts to find their own local solutions, I think is critical right now and that’s why I’m running.”

On the topic of Common Core, which has become an election-year issue across the nation, Bell said it was not his decision if Georgia should continue to use the standards or reject them.

“I understand my role that I would have as Georgia state school superintendent. The Legislature — I’m part of an education team. I know that. It’s going to be the governor, the Legislature, the Department of Education and hopefully myself,” he said. “There’s other folks who have to make that decision if they’re going to remove Common Core.

“My biggest concern, no matter what they do, is that implementation has been a disaster. Implementation and the roll out of Common Core has been just as bad as the implementation of Obamacare, in my opinion. The fact that we have students who are — 40 percent of our kids are failing. Some of the math portion goes to show that we are not prepared. This has been tough for across the state. I’m hearing from school districts across the state that they need some help and helping our teachers teach the curriculum better.”

Among his suggestions for taking on the Common Core issues include educating parents on portions of the curriculum — such as math — and including parents in discussions about the curriculum.

“I think that’s the superintendent’s job of helping districts bring back to the equation the most critical point: the heart is the parents,” Bell said.

If elected in November, Bell said his top priority would be to improve communication and cooperation with the governor’s office and the state Legislature. Improving those relationships, he believed, would be beneficial for teachers.

“I think the one thing that separates Georgia from every other state when you have to put your finger on what has kept us back and the rest of the nation going forward is the fact that there’s a long history of a less than agreeable relationship between the two offices,” Bell said. “I think that sitting down with the governor and sitting down with the [Department of Education] and leaders of the Legislature about helping collectively craft a vision for education in our state with everyone coming to the table with only the best intentions and the success of our children on our mind.”

In addition to Common Core and communicating with the governor’s office, Bell put importance on educating local school administrators about the upcoming teacher evaluations. He said teachers were concerned about the new evaluation process, as officials may be unaware of how heavily weighted some questions are in the process and unintentionally say a teacher needs improvement. If a teacher receives two sequential “needs improvement” ratings, Bell explained, they will lose their license.

“That’s a very high stakes game to play with our educators. I think there needs to be a lot more clarity there, especially when you’re tying these evaluations to their teaching certificate holders. So I totally understand teachers’ concerns there about going for their privacy and their clarity to make sure everybody is okay with being measured,” he said. “But you want to be measured in a way that’s fair and that you know the rules of the game up front and that administrators understand that when they’re doing these evaluations they understand when they’re filling them out they need to have a better understanding of ... how that will ultimately affect the teachers.”

Bell added he supported private and public partnerships in education. He cited the success of a program in Gainesville where students who are not on a graduation track are assigned a volunteer to “fill in the gap for them,” and help address problems that may be originating from home.

Overall, Bell believed he would bring fresh thinking to the superintendent position.

“I think that you have some lifelong educrats in this race and I think that sometimes people who stay on the bureaucratic side of education for long, they lose touch with what’s going on on the ground. I think having a unique perspective, being in the schools every day as a charter school chair, being a volunteer, but at the same time crafting budgets, looking at enhancing our curriculum and making the day-to-day decisions puts me in a unique position having run my own business but still make time to see what’s going on day to day and I have children in our schools,” Bell said. “So I think my on-the-ground experience is vastly different from those who sit on high in Atlanta and just pass policies and hope that they work out — because a lot of times they don’t. But people like me and the folks on my board, we have to make that work. We have to adjust and be creative and agile because failure is not an option to us.”