The longtime high school social studies teacher didn't want her job as the state's education chief to get in the way of what she loves best — teaching students. And it helped remind her why she ran for election in the first place.
“I got into politics to show my students that regular people needed to step up and serve,” Cox said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I'm leaving office and people still see me as a regular person. I'm glad I didn't change, that I didn't let politics change me.”
Cox leaves her job June 30 to become head of the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, a new Washington-based group aimed at helping states reach “Race to the Top” goals.
Meanwhile, the state's schools are reeling from billions of dollars in cuts over the past few years, which has led to layoffs, furlough and program eliminations. Critics say she was largely silent about the reductions until this year, when it was too late.
And though Cox has struggled with personal issues after she filed for bankruptcy in 2008, her eight years in office can be summed up in a few key numbers.
This year, more than 80 percent of high school students in Georgia will get a diploma, compared with 63 percent when she took office. Eight-six percent of Georgia districts are meeting federal benchmarks, compared with 64 percent in 2003 — all that while the bar for meeting No Child Left Behind goals has continued to rise.
And 72 percent of black high school juniors are passing the state's high school graduation test in science, a number that was a staggering 40 percent in 2003.
“I think Kathy Cox was instrumental in stabilizing the department,” said Caitlin McMunn Dooley, a Georgia State University faculty member in the College of Education. “She left it a lot better than she got it.”
What's more, Cox overhauled the state's entire curriculum, taking it from among the worst in the country to one of the most recognized for its rigor in getting students prepared for college. Now, students must take four years of math to graduate rather than three, and they start learning algebra earlier to help them in high school.
The road wasn't easy.
Cox was elected in 2002 in the wake of the legal trouble of her predecessor, Linda Schrenko, who was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison for embezzling $600,000. Faith in the superintendent's office and the state Department of Education was at an all-time low, and Georgia slipped in national education rankings for curriculum, test scores and graduation rates.
“She was inheriting eight years of dysfunctional leadership, which really set Georgia behind in competition with other states,” said Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. “But during her tenure, Kathy Cox has put things in place that are making us competitive and helping us to improve.”
But the state budget cuts of the past few years have overshadowed many of the gains children made in the classroom. In the past two years alone, Georgia's education system has lost $3 billion in funding — on top of $2 billion in “austerity cuts” made directly to school districts in the past eight years.
Cox didn't push back publicly against the cuts until this year, going head-to-head with Gov. Sonny Perdue.
“The last eight years have been pretty devastating to public education, and until very recently, she was somewhat silent about all that,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents teachers and administrators. “The damage was long done.”
Cox made some gaffes along the way, too.
In 2004, science teachers howled when she proposed a new science curriculum that dropped the word “evolution” in favor of “changes over time.” While the plan was quickly dropped, it drew national attention.
She also faced criticism last year after the state threw out sixth- and seventh-grade scores on social studies standardized tests because the exams didn't match the curriculum closely enough. At the same time, eighth-grade math scores plummeted, but Cox insisted the exam was solid and that the drop was because the test was harder.
She drew fire after a statewide audit revealed educators and others had changed answers on standardized tests last year after students handed them in — a move meant to help the schools meet federal benchmarks and avoid sanctions.
And though Cox is largely known nationally for her appearance on Fox's “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” in 2008, the $1 million prize money she won and pledged to three Georgia schools for deaf and blind students is still caught up in the legal battle over her bankruptcy.
“Even if the news was bad I didn't try to hide it. I admitted mistakes,” Cox said.
Still, Cox worked hard to maintain her image as a school mom unchanged by politics.
When budget woes eliminated cleaning services in the downtown government office building where the department is based, she vacuumed the floors of her suite for a year. And she insisted on continuing to teach.
“I think that really helped people understand that I was a teacher at the core,” Cox said. “And it helped me to never forget how hard this job is.”
She is exiting six months before her term ends — timing that even Cox admits isn't ideal. The job offer didn't come until after qualifying for the state's primary had passed, which meant the Republican party was left in the lurch and scrambled to find a write-in candidate to run when Cox announced she was no longer seeking a third term.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has appointed state Board of Education member Brad Bryant in the interim and is backing his run as an independent candidate for the job.