2014 elections: ETV debates

Democrats in state schools chief race mostly agree

jself@thestate.comJune 19, 2014 

Democratic candidate for state Superintendent of EducationTom Thompson looks on as Sheila Gallagher answers questions during an earlier televised debate filmed at the SCETV studios in Columbia.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Superintendent of education

    Next stop, runoff: Sheila Gallagher and Tom Thompson were the top two finishers in the June 10 Democratic primary for S.C. superintendent of education. The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will advance to the November general election. About the candidates:

    Sheila Gallagher

    Age: 61

    Residence: Florence

    Occupation: Retired educator

    Political experience: Former Florence County Democratic Party chair, ran unsuccessfully for S.C. House in 2010

    Education: Bachelor’s degree, Winthrop University; master’s degrees, the University of South Carolina, University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Winthrop University

    Tom Thompson

    Age: 64

    Residence: Forest Acres

    Occupation: Doctoral specialization coordinator, Walden University

    Political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent in 2010

    Education: Bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, the University of Illinois

    On common ground

    The two Democrats mostly found common ground in Thursday’s ETV debate.

    Both support:

    •  Revising the state’s Common Core standards based on ideas from parents, teachers and other stakeholders

    •  Raising salaries to recruit and retain quality teachers

    •  Continuing to elect the superintendent of education, rather than having the governor appoint the schools chief

    •  Expanding the state’s free 4-year-old kindergarten program for at-risk children. Gallagher would add teachers and support staff. Thompson would back early-childhood programs for children – from birth to kindergarten – and their parents.

    •  Finding a way to increase spending on schools. Gallagher would back tax reform. Thompson would push lawmakers to fully fund public education at the level recommended by a state budget office each year, hundreds of dollars per student more than the Legislature now appropriates.

    Clear differences:

    •  Forcing parents to meet with teachers. Gallagher equates parent-teacher conferences to jury duty, with similar legal consequences for skipping. Thompson says that is a bad idea, adding schools must be flexible and willing to work with parents to get face time.

    •  Pot for schools. Sheila Gallagher supports legalizing marijuana to help pay for schools, an idea Thompson opposes.

Democratic candidate for state superintendent of education Sheila Gallagher said Thursday she wants to have legal muscle to ensure parents show up for parent-teacher conferences.

But her opponent, Tom Thompson, said threatening parents with a court-ordered meeting is exactly the opposite of the relationships that he wants to build.

However, aside from that difference – and their disagreement over whether the state should legalize marijuana to help pay for public schools – the candidates mostly agreed on how they would run the state Department of Education during a debate on ETV.

Gallagher of Florence and Thompson of Forest Acres agreed to the face-off ahead of Tuesday’s runoff for their party’s nomination for state schools chief. They were the top two finishers out of four candidates in the June 10 Democratic Primary.

Two Republicans, Molly Spearman of Seneca and Sally Atwater of Charleston, also are competing in a runoff for superintendent Tuesday but will not debate. The winners of both contests will advance to November’s general election, joining American Party candidate Ed Murray of West Columbia on the ballot.

The Democrats differed sharply on how to get parents more involved in their children’s educations.

“Our parents just don’t get to come in to our parent-teacher conferences. They are working,” Gallagher said in support of her plan. That plan would make parent-teacher conferences like jury duty – parents who skip would answer to a judge.

“I don’t agree with that proposal,” Thompson replied. “That puts the parent and the school on an adversarial level.

“I like the idea of allowing parents time off (from work) if at all possible. But the school districts can also be flexible in terms of when that parent comes in, and sometimes you have to go to the parents’ place, meet them on their ground.”

Gallagher and Thompson both touted their more than 30 years of experience in education.

Thompson, who coordinates doctoral programs for an online university, is a former teacher and principal, college professor and dean of graduate studies at S.C. State University. He also worked for the state Education Department, coordinating training programs for school administrators.

Thompson said that “depth of leadership” makes him the best candidate.

Gallagher said her more than 30 years of experience as a teacher in Florence schools and stint as president of the S.C. Education Association, where she worked on policy issues with the S.C. General Assembly, qualify her for the job. Though retired from teaching, Gallagher said she still has a valid S.C. teaching license.

The candidates mostly agreed on other topics. The topics raised did not include whether to legalize marijuana to help pay for public schools – a move Gallagher favors but Thompson opposes.

The candidates both said they oppose part of a new state law requiring struggling third-grade readers to repeat a year of school. That law, which passed with bi-partisan support, also expands the state’s free 4-year-old kindergarten program to more at-risk students.

“Reading is fundamental,” Gallagher said. “But part of the problem when we say that a child will be held back is that we needed to have done something earlier.”

Gallagher said she supports expanding 4K programs, but the state also needs to increase staffing – teachers and support professionals – to identify struggling students early on and help them catch up by the third grade.

Thompson said he has “mixed feelings” about the law. “Holding a child back at the third-grade level does not guarantee success,” he said, adding it does increase the likelihood of the child dropping out later on.

Thompson said he would support expanding early-childhood education programs for parents and children from “birth to kindergarten ... so that the parent is ready, the child is ready, and the school district is ready” for school. Then, he said, schools “can take the child to graduation.”

Both agreed the controversial Common Core education standards need a close review by educators, parents and other stakeholders. Those standards, opposed mostly by conservatives, say what students should know at each grade level.

Gallagher and Thompson also agree higher teacher salaries are a key to attracting more, high-quality teachers to the state.

“We attract good teachers by making the teaching profession attractive” through a “competitive salary so that they don’t have to work two or three jobs in order to pay the bills that they have,” Thompson said.

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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