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Outgoing national PTA president on privatization of schools, funding and future

My AJC colleague Ty Tagami interviewed outgoing national PTA President and Georgia native Otha Thornton, a retired Army Lt. Colonel who won a Bronze Star Medal in Iraq.

Thornton has to be a brave man to answer Tagami's questions so frankly, given the political climate in Georgia.

By Ty Tagami

For the past two years, Otha Thornton represented parents across the country as president of the U.S. PTA. The native Georgian — he was born in Elberton and graduated from Elberton County High School – completes his two-year term Sunday.

The retired Army Lt. Colonel was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for exceptional performance in combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, worked as a communications officer in the White House under Presidents Bush and Obama and is back in Georgia as an analyst with General Dynamics in Fort Stewart. His two children graduated from high school in Maryland after attending elementary school in Richmond Hill near Fort Stewart.

Thornton is the first African-American man elected to lead the U.S. PTA in its 118-year history. He talks about the organization’s mission and about education in America — and Georgia.

Q: What do you see as the big challenges facing education?

A: We are almost infested with ALEC members — American Legislative Exchange Council. They’re for privatization of education. If you want to go to a private school, go to a private school. I have no issues with that. But 90 percent of our nation’s children go to public schools, so we need to make sure that our public schools are sound. Before I took this position, I was the Georgia PTA legislative chair, so I actually worked with some of those guys down there and some of the committee chairs at the time were ALEC members. [They wanted to give private school tuition vouchers to the children of military personnel.] If that military child goes to a private school — the government gives federal impact aid to public schools — so if … military kids get vouchers, the money will come out of the public school system. You’re going to lose federal impact funds that the government gives to states to compensate for those military kids going to public schools. In Columbus, Ga., alone, Fort Benning, Ga., they receive $1 million a year in impact aid funds, and [the lawmakers] didn’t know that.

Q: Next year, a constitutional amendment that allows the Georgia governor to take over “failing” schools will appear on the ballot. Will you tell people to vote for or against this Opportunity School District?

A: I’m speaking as a citizen of Georgia now: I would tell them to vote against it. It would impact most of your minority school systems, like Augusta, Atlanta, Columbus, and Athens. When you take a kid out, the school has to make up for the loss of students and the loss of state and federal funding for those students.

Q: What do you think is the biggest strength of our educational system?

A: Common Core is a great standard, but the Republican Party has politicized it. I remember back in 2009 when the National Governor’s Association, who were predominantly Republican and Sonny Perdue was the chair, brought Common Core forward. When President Obama came into office and he did Race to the Top [a federal grant program that encouraged adoption of the Common Core], people took that and they twisted it [into] ‘the federal government is trying to federalize education.’ That’s just not true. But if you continue to repeat something so much, people begin to believe it. In Georgia, the fact that we have implemented Common Core and it is still moving forward is a positive thing, and it’s going to help us move forward as a state.

Q: What do you think about the decision to create a local state test (the Georgia Milestones) rather than join other states in using the PARCC assessment to gauge mastery of the Common Core standards?

A: It doesn’t give a true reflection of how our kids stack up against other kids. I don’t know if xenophobic is the right word, or a parochial view of, ‘this is our state.’ It’s almost like we’re fighting the Civil War in some states again, and that’s unfortunate, particularly in the fast-moving world that we’re in, and competing with. I went to West Virginia and testified [about Common Core] before their joint education committee in their assembly in December and listened to them talk about state rights and state supremacy. I’m like, ‘good God, I’m back in the ’60s here.’

Q: Do we spend enough on education?

A: If you value something, you invest in it. And here’s something else for you to look at as you move forward. They’re looking at new base realignments and closings, and what these states don’t realize is the military actually looks at the rankings for state schools. So when they start drawing down, that’s going to play a factor. But the average state legislator doesn’t even think about that type of stuff.

Q: What are some of the best fundraisers you’ve ever heard of or seen?

A: As the national PTA president, I’ve encouraged parents that we are advocates, not fundraisers. We encourage parents to really push to make our government responsible for funding education in an adequate manner. The states that get it, they’re going well. Like California. They get it. Maryland, they get it. The states like Louisiana, they don’t get it. Alabama, they don’t get it.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.