Controversies over sex ed, Democratic past ripple through race for SC schools chief

ccope@thestate.comJune 21, 2014 

Sally Atwater (on left) and Molly Spearman will face each other in a runoff for the GOP nomination for SC Superintendent of Education.


  • A glance at campaign finances

    Each GOP candidate had raised more than $125,000 going into the primary. Atwater has a strong base of donors from the D.C. area and from those with business-related titles. Spearman had a strong base of donors from South Carolina and from those with education-related titles.

    Sally Atwater

    $152,400 total raised, including $95,000 in loans

    $37,200 available to spend going into the primary

    $30,000 from the D.C. area, including Virginia and Maryland

    $17,700 from S.C. donors

    Molly Spearman

    $128,500 total raised, with no loans

    $112,200 from S.C. donors

    $57,600 available to spend going into the primary

    $40,000 from educators, including principals, administrators, professors and a student

    To read more about the Democratic candidates for S.C. superintendent of education, who debated Thursday, go to the article with this story online at

    About the candidates

    Four candidates remain in the Republican and Democratic runoffs for state superintendent of education. The winner of each will be in the November general election ballot along with American Party candidate Ed Murray of West Columbia.


    Sheila Gallagher

    Age: 61

    Residence: Florence

    Occupation: Retired educator

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

    Education: Bachelor’s degree from Winthrop University, three master’s degrees from USC, University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Winthrop University

    Primary results: Received 42,052 votes or 36 percent

    Tom Thompson

    Age: 64

    Residence: Forest Acres

    Occupation: Doctoral specialization coordinator, Walden University

    Political experience: Unsuccessful run for S.C. superintendent in 2010

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

    Primary results: Received 30,390 votes, or 26 percent


    Sally Atwater

    Age: 63

    Residence: Charleston

    Occupation: Retired special-needs teacher

    Political experience: Worked for the U.S. Department of Education, under President Ronald Reagan, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

    Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Winthrop University

    Primary results: Received 63,387 votes, or 22 percent

    Molly Spearman

    Age: 60

    Residence: Saluda

    Occupation: Director, S.C. Association of School Administrators; former teacher and school administrator

    Political experience: State representative, 1992-98

    Education: Bachelor’s degree, Lander University; master’s degree, George Washington University; education specialist’s degree, University of South Carolina

    Primary results: Received 64,758 votes, or 22 percent

    Candidate’s issues and priorities


    Sheila Gallagher

    •  Proposes letting voters decide whether to legalize marijuana. If made legal, money from the taxes on marijuana sales could be used to help pay for schools

    •  Give parent-teacher conferences the same weight as a jury summons, legally requiring parents to show up and their employers to excuse them from work

    •  Decrease class size for pre-kindergarten until third grade, hiring more teachers and paying them at a professional wage

    Tom Thompson

    •  Attract and retain teachers with increased pay; also, address the reasons teachers leave rural school districts

    •  Advocate for public education and work directly with the Legislature for more money for schools

    •  Repair the relationship between the State Department of Education and local school districts


    Sally Atwater

    •  Give more state money directly to classrooms since many teachers now buy their own supplies; ensure more financial accountability at local school districts and the State Department of Education

    •  Ensure Gov. Nikki Haley’s reading initiatives are implemented, not stopped by local school districts or the state Department of Education

    •  Appoint teachers and professionals to help write S.C. education standards.

    Molly Spearman

    •  Rewrite the state’s education standards with S.C. teachers and instructional leaders; also, use a test that will provide good information to a teacher about what a student knows

    •  Help parents and students understand the careers available in South Carolina and how to prepare for those careers

    •  Better communication among the state Department of Education, educators, businesses and families

One candidate stumbled badly when asked about sex education in schools. The other was first elected as a Democrat.

Tuesday’s runoff between the two Republicans vying for the GOP nomination for S.C. superintendent of education has become a fiery contest.

The June 10 primary results were tight between Sally Atwater of Charleston and Molly Spearman of Saluda, with Spearman leading narrowly. Both received about 22 percent of votes, beating six other candidates.

Then, things got heated.

In the last two weeks of campaigning, Atwater, 63, has been accused of being “clueless” and Spearman, 60, has been accused of being a closet Democrat.

Evasion on evolution, sex ed

Atwater’s appearance on WORD 106.3, an Upstate conservative radio station, has been criticized because she did not answer directly questions about sex education and South Carolina’s science standards.

A YouTube video of the interview has been viewed more than 34,000 times, more than half of the number of votes each candidate received in the June 10 primary.

In one excerpt, host Russ Cassell asks Atwater, the widow of Republican operative Lee Atwater, her position on teaching sex education in public schools.

“Well, I am for our health standards right now,” Atwater replied. “Once I get in there, I will look and see other things. But I’m really going to stand by our health standards right now.”

“What does that mean?” Cassell asked.

“Well, we have certain health standards that our schools teach, and so that’s what I’m going to do right now … and the parents are given options, whether to go or not and attend these classes,” Atwater said.

Cassell asked the question in various ways. But Atwater, who said she favored teaching abstinence, never answered directly whether she thought sex ed should be taught.

The radio host then asked Atwater what is appropriate to teach regarding evolution and creationism.

“Again, I’m going to go back to what our science standards are,” Atwater said.

“What are our science standards?” Cassell asked.

“… That’s what we teach in our schools now,” Atwater said.

After Atwater hung up, Cassell said: “What you have just heard is an example of a person running for public office on name recognition only who is clueless,” referring to Atwater’s prominence because of her late husband.

Subsequently, Atwater declined a debate with Spearman, hosted by ETV. Atwater’s campaign noted she already had appeared on an ETV debate before the primary, when there were eight GOP candidates.

Re-asked Cassell’s questions about sex education and evolution by The State, Atwater provided more direct answers.

She said students should have to opt-in into sex ed classes, based on their parents’ permission. Now, parents have to opt-out their students.

Atwater also said she supports teaching all theories related to the beginning of civilization. “We need our students to develop these critical thinking skills that they’re going to need for the 21st century and let them decide.”

Asked by The State, Spearman also weighed in on the two issues, saying she supports teaching evolution and medically accurate information about sex.

“Evolution is a theory,” Spearman said. “Our students need to be able to look at it and be able to analyze it properly.”

Spearman also said she favors teaching abstinence as well as medically accurate information about sex.

“Parents do need to know what’s being taught, and that has been an issue because it differs from one classroom, one district to another,” Spearman said.

The sex-ed-and-evolution brouhaha could hurt Atwater, one political scientist says.

USC’s Mark Tompkins said Atwater's radio interview makes Spearman look better prepared for the job.

“It immunizes Molly Spearman somewhat for ‘not being as Republican as we like,’” Tompkins said.

‘This is the history of the Republican party’

Spearman repeatedly has been called a Democrat disguised as a Republican.

She was elected to the S.C. House in 1992 as a Democrat, switching to the Republican Party in 1995.

“It really doesn’t upset me because this is the history of the Republican Party,” Spearman said. “Many folks were former Democrats and switched parties.”

Spearman said former President Ronald Reagan also faced similar questions when he campaigned in South Carolina.

“I’m trusting (voters to) see through that ... and give me a chance to win this,” Spearman said.

Spearman, who said she has voted in GOP primaries for almost 20 years, also has been criticized for donating to Democratic candidates.

Spearman defends those donations, saying her career in education means she has to work closely with the members of the S.C. House and state Senate education committees. “I have donated to folks who have served on those committees,” Spearman said, adding she has given to Democrats and Republicans.

Last year, Spearman also donated to Democratic state Rep. Mike Anthony of Union when he was considering a race for state superintendent. Anthony later dropped out of the race, which Spearman entered. Spearman defends the donation to Anthony, saying he was a former teacher in her hometown of Saluda and had taught her children.

She also said she has given to Republicans, giving more than $4,000 to U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham of Seneca and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Springdale in recent years.

Criticism and endorsements

Atwater’s donations have been criticized as well.

But instead of who Atwater donated to, the criticisms have focused on where the money given to her campaign has come from – Washington, D.C.

Atwater held jobs at the U.S. Department of Education during Reagan’s administration. Subsequently, she worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “I easily say, ‘Look, I got my training in Washington,’ ” Atwater said.

In this year’s election, more than half of Atwater’s contributions have come from donors in the D.C. area, according to pre-primary filings.

She said those donors are personal friends, people who she called and asked for support.

Meanwhile, Spearman has been criticized for her role as head of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, made up of many of the state’s public school administrators.

Current Superintendent Mick Zais has compared associations like Spearman’s with unions.

“That is totally false,” Spearman said. “South Carolina is a right-to-work state, and I am proud of that.”

Spearman said the association is like many others, including the S.C. Bankers Association.

And, after the primary, one prominent S.C. banker, Mike Brenan, BB&T’s S.C. president, endorsed Spearman.

Brenan is tpast chairman of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, and Spearman has received strong financial support from business and education leaders – a combined $57,300.

“Molly is the best qualified and will work closely with business and industry, teachers and administrators to transform public education,” said Brenan, who also is Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointee to the state Board of Education.

Republican Haley has not endorsed a candidate in the GOP runoff. However, Republican Superintendent Zais has endorsed Atwater.

“Sally Atwater will bring to the state superintendent’s office solid conservative values and will work tirelessly to expand school choice and educator accountability,” Zais, who is not seeking re-election, said in a statement. “I give her my strongest endorsement.”

Zais previously had endorsed Meka Childs, a former lieutenant in his administration who placed sixth in the June 10 primary.

“Mick Zais gave more power to parents through choice and opposing Common Core and I want to do the same thing,” Atwater said of his endorsement.

But the value of those endorsements and Atwater’s famous name is yet to be seen.

Voters do not always recall famous endorsements or names at the ballot box, USC’s Tompkins said.

“You can't run just because it's interesting, and you can't just run because of your name recognition,” he said.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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