SC Senate: Let governor, not voters, choose state schools chief

02/14/2013 11:46 AM

02/17/2013 6:37 AM

S.C. voters would decide whether they want to elect the state’s schools chief or have the governor appoint a superintendent and oversee that post if a state Senate proposal becomes law.

A Senate panel Thursday approved a bill seeking to amend the state Constitution so that the governor would appoint the state superintendent of education, currently elected to partisan four-year terms.

Superintendent Mick Zais, a first-term Republican who plans to seek re-election in 2014, supports the plan, said Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley. Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, also supports an appointed superintendent.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, has proposed similar bills regularly since 2004, but this year is the first time the plan is gaining traction in the Senate. Last year, a similar proposal passed the House 82-28 but failed in the Senate. The full Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Campsen’s proposal next week.

“If you’re going to hold someone accountable for what happens in the Department of Education, you need to make sure they have the authority to make changes in that department ... and in statewide education policy,” Campsen said, adding “real accountability” requires having the schools chief answer to the governor.

Roger Smith, executive director of the S.C. Education Association, urged the panel not to move forward with the proposal, calling it “a distraction to what is really needed” — a commitment to improving public education in the state.

“Accountability should be directly with the citizens of South Carolina and not with the governor,” Smith said.

State Board of Education chairman David Blackmon, who was not at the hearing, said having the governor appoint the superintendent could lead to better candidates, with professional qualifications, seeking the post.

“We go to great lengths in society to find the best talent for a university football coach, but when it comes to something as important as education, under the present arrangement,” candidates are “limited to (the) boundaries of the state,” he said.

The proposed constitutional amendment must win two-thirds approval from both the Senate and House before going to voters in the 2014 general election. If voters approve, the amendment would take effect with the start of the governor’s term in January 2019.

Board of Education questioned

Lawmakers questioned whether the bill also should seek to abolish the state Board of Education, defined by law as the policy-making body for public elementary and secondary education. But Campsen said voters likely would not approve that step.

The board adopts education standards and approves regulations and policies before they go to the General Assembly for consideration.

Ragley said the board is an extra layer of government “that may not be necessary” between the Education Department and Legislature, which gives final approval to policies and regulations.

Campsen said the board plays a positive role, giving input on curriculum and policies, but added lawmakers need to review and possibly revise its duties.

State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, expressed concerns about eliminating the board.

The superintendent, whether elected or appointed, has a “bully pulpit,” he said. The board of education provides some needed “push back.”

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