Next year’s election for state school superintendent promises a matchup between the current office holder and the one who preceded him.

After expressing uncertainty last month about whether he would run, former State School Superintendent John Barge now says he will campaign in the Republican primary against incumbent Richard Woods, perhaps borrowing a page from the successful GOP strategy used in one high-profile election last week.

Barge said he wants to excise “ideologies and things that are creeping” into schools, distracting from their core mission of reading, writing and arithmetic. The consequence, he says, has been tumbling academic performance since 2014, his last year in office, when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor rather than for re-election.

Woods, in his seventh year as superintendent, started campaigning for a third term this spring. He said last month that he would use another four years to close pandemic-related learning gaps, increase graduation rates, grow the shrinking teacher pipeline and give high school graduates more work and educational options.

The winner of the May primary will likely face Cobb County school board member Dr. Jaha Howard. The dentist said last month that he is planning to run for the statewide office. So far, no one has stepped forward to challenge him in the Democratic primary, but it’s early: candidate qualification doesn’t start until March.

Howard, who is Black, said he was prompted to run in part by the “manufactured CRT outrage,” a reference to the rebellion against critical race theory that swept through some school districts last spring.

Georgia educators say they are not teaching critical race theory, an academic construct taught in some college classrooms that says racism is systemic in U.S. institutions. Many educators had never heard of the term when it suddenly became an angry rallying cry at school board meetings in Georgia and across the country. The controversy prompted the state education board, which is appointed by governors, to adopt a resolution seeking to limit classroom discussions involving race.

Republicans have wielded the academic theory as a wedge issue. It proved a sharp one in Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin won for governor last week in part by using opposition to CRT to win support from parents.

In Georgia, high-profile Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp and State Sen. Burt Jones, who wants to be lieutenant governor, see paths to victory next year by campaigning on this and other cultural issues.

Barge, who like Woods, is white, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that critical race theory won’t be the only social issue driving his campaign.

“That’s part of it. But you know I just personally don’t feel like we should be having discussions about gender dysphoria and gender identity issues in elementary schools and talking to children about, you know, they can be whatever gender they want to be,” he said.

State leaders, including Woods, point out that school boards in Georgia have significant local control under the state constitution, but Barge, who worked as a local superintendent on the Georgia coast after his stint in state office, said local school leaders still want “some cover” and “guidance” on controversial issues.

A consequence of distraction by such things, Barge said, is falling academic performance. He pointed to Georgia’s most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card” created by the U.S. government to allow state comparisons.

The percentage of Georgia fourth grade students who performed proficiently in reading and math in 2019, the last time those biennial tests were administered (they were paused this year due to the pandemic), was smaller than in 2013 when Barge held office.

That is only part of the story though. The 2019 performance in those same subjects by eighth graders had actually improved by about as much as it had worsened among the younger students. Those older students would have been in third grade during Barge’s last year as state superintendent, but they grew up under Woods.