Cox resigning as state schools chief

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

ATLANTA -- Georgia's school superintendent said Monday she is stepping down to take a job leading a national education nonprofit organization, setting the stage for a hard-fought race to take over the state's top education post.

A tearful Kathy Cox told reporters on Monday that she had planned to seek a third term and -- despite some high-profile controversies -- expected to win. But just as the campaign was gearing up, she was sought out to run a new group designed to help states boost student achievement.

''I really felt this was something I couldn't turn away from,'' said Cox, a Republican.

Five candidates -- two Republicans and one Democrat -- are running for the schools job.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Monday he would appoint someone to fill out the remainder of Cox's term. Cox said she will resign as state schools superintendent June 30 and start her new job July 1.

Perdue called Cox ''a passionate advocate for Georgia's students, committed to improving achievement for every child.''

''She pushed strongly for a more rigorous curriculum, which is preparing our students to compete on the global stage,'' the Republican governor said.

Cox will become chief executive officer of the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, a new Washington-based group aimed at assisting states in reaching ''Race for the Top'' goals.

Cox was in her second term as Georgia's schools superintendent. She had also served two terms in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Cox's personal problems had gained attention recently. She and her husband, John, filed for bankruptcy in November, reeling from losses his home building business incurred as the housing market crashed. The couple reported $3.5 million in debt. The bankruptcy filing has placed in jeopardy her winnings from an appearance earlier that year on Fox's ''Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?'' Cox had pledged the money to three public schools for the deaf and blind. A bankruptcy lawyer is attempting to get control of the money to pay off some of her outstanding debts.

Cox has won praise for overhauling the state's K-12 curriculum and toughening tests used to measure whether schools have met federal benchmarks. Scores on standardized tests and graduation rates have improved under her watch.

And this year she has butted heads with Perdue, who has slashed schools funding as part of overall state budget cuts brought about by plunging tax collections. Cox warned at state budget hearings earlier this year that the state risked losing the gains it has made unless it continued to invest necessary dollars in the classroom.

She waded into the culture wars in 2004 when she proposed striking the word evolution from the state's biology curriculum.

Still, Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said that overall Cox brought credibility back to the department.

''Her tenure has been rocky at times but I think her last impact on the department will be that she made the curriculum far more rigorous,'' he said.

The Republicans running to succeed Cox are education administrator John Barge, a Bartow County schools administrator from Rome, and educator Richard Woods, an Irwin County schools administrator from Tifton. The Democrats are Joe Martin, former Atlanta Board of Education president; and teachers Beth Farokhi, of Marietta; and Brian Westlake, of Decatur.