For the first time ever, public education took center stage in Atlanta’s mayoral election. Runoff candidates Mary Norwood and Keisha Lance Bottoms took part Friday in a debate ranging from early childhood education all the way up to college.
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The event was hosted by the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS), Learn4Life, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Working Families and the United Way of Greater Atlanta.
Norwood and Bottoms answered questions from three panelists about different areas of education.
GEEARS board chairperson Stephanie Blank asked the candidates if they would allocate city money to expand early education programs. Both said yes.
Norwood said it’s a matter of equity.
“We know the importance of all children getting early childhood before they hit kindergarten so they have a level playing field,” she said.
Bottoms agreed, and said the hefty price tag that often accompanies early education is worth it.
“I think it’s our responsibility, and even if the case has to be made that, from a city perspective, we pay on the front end or we pay on the back end,” Bottoms said. “We know the crime rate is often impacted by education opportunities.”
The candidates agreed on most issues, but notably disagreed on one.
When asked by Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen whether the school district should automatically be included in the city’s annexation process, Norwood said, “Yes.”
“We cannot have our city divided into those citizens who are part of our school system, and those citizens who are not,” Norwood said. “Our school system does not thrive unless everyone’s a part of it.”
Bottoms said each situation is different, and communities should have their say in the process.
“While APS is making strides, and I applaud those strides, we are not there in each and every community, Bottoms said. “I think it’s a community-by-community assessment.”
At the end of the school pipeline, when students start entering the workforce, the candidates agreed Atlanta needs to do more to engage its youth.
Morehouse Interim President Harold L. Martin, Jr. asked each candidate how she would achieve that, if elected.
Norwood said the city could include jobs for young people in its contracts with vendors.
“Why aren’t we saying that every single one of those contracts would have two, three, five, 10, I don’t know what the number is, but young people engaged?” Norwood said.
Bottoms said city leaders need to set a higher bar for young people.
“The best thing we can do to re-engage our youth is to set a level of expectation, and then provide them with the tools to get there,” she said.
The mayor has no control over the Atlanta Public Schools. However, both Norwood and Bottoms said, if elected, they’d return property deeds to the school board that the city still holds.
A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.