student at Sutton Middle school debate practice

State School Superintendent: Educating our country’s future

Aug 19, 2022

This primer is the third of a five-part series to guide voters through the upcoming midterm election for Georgia agriculture, labor, insurance and public service commissioners as well as the superintendent of schools – down ballot races often overlooked by average voters. This series examines how what happens in these offices impact you.

Georgia Votes

The Gist

Nearly 2 million Georgia children have returned or are headed back to the classroom for the 2022-23 school year.

It’s a fresh but crucial start for a state educational system hit hard by the pandemic. A state audit found Covid-19 put Georgia’s public school students three-to-six months behind due to remote learning.

What’s Happening

How well — and how quickly  — Georgia’s students recoup from COVID’s impact falls largely on the State School Superintendent.

The state’s top education czar also will be working to retain teachers at a time when educators are dealing with burnout, rising political and parental pressures and concerns over school shootings. And as the chief overseer of the state’s Department of Education, there's actual school work to do.

“Every so many years, the standards for each subject matter has to be updated,” said Martha Zoller, a Georgia Board of Education member who represents District 9 in the northeastern part of the state. “We just finished the math standards. We're working on the English standards right now.”

Georgia’s school superintendent enforces the policies of the state’s department of education and any school receiving state aid. The superintendent also is required, by law, to make recommendations to ensure the welfare and efficiency of the state’s 181 school districts. Those districts include over 2,200 schools, about 1.6 million students and 114,800 teachers. 

Martha Zoller represents the 9th Congressional District on the Board of the Georgia Department of Education. (Credit: Martha Zoller)
Martha Zoller represents the 9th Congressional District on the Board of the Georgia Department of Education. (Credit: Martha Zoller)

Why It Matters

K-12 education accounts for about a third of Georgia’s entire $30 billion-plus budget, according to Georgia House Bill 911 (FY2023). Even if you don’t have children in school, you’re still paying for their educational care. More than 45% of Georgia public education funding comes from local tax revenue such as property tax, according to the National Education Association.

“When you think about property taxes and all the other money that goes towards education, it is a huge responsibility as far as management is concerned,” Zoller said.

The state superintendent’s job is “the most important job in the state,” said Julie Magardo, a third-grade teacher in Paulding County who has taught for 27 years. “We are educating the future of our country.”

Meet your State School Superintendent. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)
Meet your State School Superintendent. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Technology, as well as ever-evolving testing and new initiatives, has made teaching more challenging and complex, said Magardo. “I always feel like I'm trying to fly a plane while I'm building it,” she said.

For the past two decades, Georgia schools have been sorely underfunded. Some $10 billion has been shaved from the school budget during that time - even as enrollment grew by more than 250,000 students. The austerity forced many teachers to reach into their own pockets to pay for much-needed school supplies. Many districts rely on federal money to fill gaps left by the state.

To kick off this new school year, Gov. Brian Kemp announced in late-July a statewide Back to School supplement. All full-time public school teachers and staff will get $125 to use for school supplies. The money comes from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Public school teachers also are expected to get a $2,000 raise in September. 

A sixth-grade math teacher leads a lesson about the connection between music and math. (Credit: Allison Shelley for EDU images)

What’s Next?

Voters will decide Nov. 8 whether Georgia’s School Superintendent Richard Woods, who has been in the position since 2015 , keeps his job or if it goes to his Democratic challenger Alisha Thomas Searcy, a Spelman College graduate and former Georgia state Representative who owns an education consulting business.

“I'm looking for the State School Superintendent to talk about the relationship between parents, students and teachers,” Zoller said. “Parents pay the bills, and they do deserve a seat at the table but we have to have it in a way that is constructive for everybody.”

The candidates that will be on your ballot Nov. 8, 2022. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Join the Conversation

What else do you want to know about the Department of Education, voting or elections in Georgia? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing [email protected]  or on Twitter @LVJOYNER

Read State Affairs’ Georgia Votes 2022 series.

Part I: Public Service Commissioners: Keeping the Lights On

Part II: Department of Agriculture: Where Poultry, pie, pump and puppy meet



Header photo: Students from Sutton Middle School’s debate team practice for an upcoming competition. (Credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages by All4Ed)