By Dorie Turner
The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Georgia Democrats are mounting a battle for the state schools superintendent's chair after Republican incumbent Kathy Cox withdrew from the election suddenly this week, leaving her party in the lurch after the filing deadline for primary elections had passed.
Cox's sudden departure from the race means Democrats have the most recognizable candidate -- Joe Martin, who was on the Atlanta school board for 20 years and has run for the state's top education job twice, narrowly losing to former superintendent Linda Schrenko in the 1990s. Schrenko was elected in 1994, and the GOP has held the superintendent's office since.
"Kathy Cox getting out has really left the Republicans in a bind," said Emory University political science professor Merle Black. "That's certainly an opportunity for Democrats to compete and perhaps return to power."
It also comes at a time when Republicans are being criticized for cutting hundreds of millions in funding from public education, leading many of the state's 180 districts to lay off teachers, slash programs and furlough workers. And teachers' groups are frustrated with the Republican administration over a push to link educators' pay to student test scores and a state-run commission that can approve charter schools turned down by local school officials.
"There is a great discontent around Georgia about what's has been happening to our schools, and people want a state schools superintendent who will stand up for our students and educators," said Martin, who is head of the Georgia School Funding Assocation, which is pushing for more equitable funding for the state's poorest districts.
Martin, 67, is up against retired Georgia State University administrator Beth Farokhi, 62, of Marietta; and Gwinnett County high school teacher Brian Westlake, 40, of Decatur.
The Republican candidates are Bartow County school administrator John Barge, 43, from Rome, and Richard Woods, a 47-year-old Irwin County school administrator from Tifton.
Barge said Cox's resignation doesn't change his strategy for the campaign, though he admitted her absence makes the Republican race much easier.
"It makes the scenery a lot better," said Barge, who has raised the most of the two Republicans in the race with more than $22,000 in campaign donations. Woods has raised $7,500. "But we're still moving forward with a return to a commonsense approach to education."
Still, state Republican party chairwoman Sue Everhart admits that Cox's resignation leaves her with an uphill battle before the state primary election July 20.
"It's going to make my job harder, but we'll do the job," she said. "I've got two guys out there running and they are going to be running hard."
Cox is stepping down June 30 to become the chief executive officer of the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, a new Washington-based group aimed at helping states in reach "Race for the Top" goals. Many say she brought public confidence back to the school superintendent's office in the aftermath of Schrenko's legal troubles.
Schrenko is serving an eight-year sentence in federal prison on charges of stealing more than $600,000 in federal education money.