Columbia, SC — THE DAY AFTER she finished at the top of the four-way race for the Democratic nomination for superintendent of education, Sheila Gallagher announced that she wanted to debate second-place finisher Tom Thompson. She said she hoped to talk about her new ideas, and she listed a single one: “a statewide referendum on the full legalization of marijuana in order to raise nearly $200 million in new revenues to invest in our public schools.”
And we were reminded once again of how easy it is for a political party so far out in the wilderness to yield to the temptation of irresponsible gimmickry. And of what it is that we find so appealing about Dr. Thompson.
Dr. Thompson is not into gimmicks. He is an earnest educator who has spent a career teaching in the inner-city schools in Chicago and running a rural high school in South Carolina and training many of our state’s principals and superintendents through the state Education Department and USC.
He isn’t into making headlines, but instead exudes a quiet professionalism that leaves little doubt that he would get to work quickly, and successfully, reinstating the professional development and technical assistance that he says the Education Department has not been providing to the school districts.
Like his opponent in this coming Tuesday’s run-off election, he thinks our schools need more money. And the fact is that he’s no more likely to convince our Republican Legislature to increase the sales tax to provide that money than Ms. Gallagher is to get recreational marijuana legalized. That’s not the point.
The point is the very different approaches the two take to education funding.
Dr. Thompson understands that if something is important, you pay for it first, you pay for it with legitimate, stable revenue, and you don’t pay for it by exploiting the weaknesses of our citizens, or by luring them into addictions they might otherwise never consider. How many people gamble on the lottery because our state has suckered them into believing they’re helping support education?
The point is that what the education superintendent chooses to talk about goes a long way toward setting the tone of the school debate in our state — or else rendering herself irrelevant — and Dr. Thompson’s opponent seems fixated on this particular gimmick.
If there’s anything that gives us pause about Dr. Thompson, it’s that we’re not sure how well he would do the important part of the job that shouldn’t be part of the job but is: being the public face of public education, the “drum major,” as he says.
We don’t worry that he’d engage in gimmickry or talk down our schools or present any other negative impression. We worry that he’s too wonkish to rally the public around the sort of bold initiatives that our state needs in order to make sure that children receive the quality of education they need to have if they are to prosper as individuals and if we are to prosper as a state.
But he says he’s committed to that task, and even if he’s not particularly dynamic, our state would be better served by someone who’s too low-key than someone who has an extremely engaging way of advocating bad ideas.
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