12 candidates vying to lead SC schools

05/17/2014 8:59 PM

05/27/2014 6:07 PM

While one candidate for S.C. superintendent wants to legalize marijuana, another wants the NAACP to end its boycott of South Carolina. A third candidate has close connections to the Bush family. A fourth has been a strong proponent of abstinence-only education.

And that only hits the highlights. There are eight more candidates for S.C. superintendent of education in the June Democratic and Republican primaries on June 10.

The job pays $92,007 a year. It is an administrative position with responsibilities that include overseeing the state Department of Education and serving as secretary to the State Board of Education.

With so many candidates in the Republican race, a primary runoff is likely on June 24.

In the 2010 and 2012 primaries, all of the nine state-level races that had five or more candidates required runoffs, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. State Election Commission.

“A runoff may not happen, but if recent history holds true we would expect to see one,” Whitmire said.

GOP concern: Common Core

A majority of the Republican candidates have one thing in common: their vehement opposition to Common Core.

The education standards were developed by state education leaders and governors in 48 states. The standards specify what students should know at various grades; how they are taught is decided at the state and local levels. But the standards are opposed bitterly by some who say the federal government has coerced states into adopting Common Core.

The state Senate has sent legislation to the S.C. House that calls for a review of Common Core standards by Jan. 1, 2015. New standards would have to be enacted if that bill becomes law for the 2015-2016 school year, but the new standards still could be similar to Common Core.

The legislative action means that South Carolina’s new superintendent could have little say in what becomes of Common Core. But the issue is dominating the GOP primary to determine a successor to Republican Superintendent Mick Zais, who is not seeking a second term.

GOP candidate Meka Childs, a former Zais aide, said she was amazed by the pressure she felt as a member of the Education Oversight Committee to adopt Common Core. That pressure, she says, came solely because Common Core was tied to federal money.

“I don’t believe all federal money is evil,” said Childs, of West Columbia. But she wants to eliminate the federal government weighing in on standards, which she said are best addressed by states.

Fellow Republican candidate Sheri Few – who runs the nonprofit organization S.C. Parents Involved in Education, which has advocated for abstinence education and fought Common Core – said she does not want South Carolina to end up with “repackaged and rebranded Common Core standards.”

The Lugoff Republican also said she would review textbooks for “falsehoods and bias.”

“There’s really an anti-American, anti-Christian tone to the textbooks,” Few said.

Another anti-Common Core activist and GOP candidate, Amy Cofield, said she began to fight Common Core when her son, then in the eighth grade, did not have graded homework.

Cofield, of Lexington, said she went to the administration and school board and rallied support on Facebook. She said she knew she had been successful when grading policies were changed and high school students hosted a sit-in because they were angry homework once again was being graded.

The sit-in protest was “hysterical,” Cofield said.

Preparing students, teaching teachers

Republican candidate Molly Spearman of Saluda said the education crisis nationwide is students graduating from high school and college without jobs.

Spearman said wonderful careers are available in South Carolina, but graduates are not being prepared well enough for those jobs. If elected, she said, she would enhance career centers and give students in rural areas the opportunity to attend centers in other counties to take advantage of programs.

Spearman said she would publicize the successes of South Carolina schools. “I’m tired of all the negativity about our education system,” she said.

Spearman also said she would emphasize having high-quality teachers and principals.

Childs said the state needs to rethink the way teachers are recruited, trained and prepared to handle today’s classrooms. “I want to make sure we’re doing all we can to esteem the teaching profession,” Childs said.

Republican candidate Sally Atwater said a top priority would be pay raises for teachers.

“We need to lift them up,” Atwater said. “They’ve been demoralized.”

Atwater, the widow of Republican Party operative Lee Atwater, has been endorsed by former President George H. W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush. Atwater, a Union native who lives in Charleston, also has been endorsed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of South Carolina’s 2012 Republican presidential primary. Her campaign leadership team includes former Gov. James B. Edwards and former S.C. first lady Iris Campbell.

Confederate flag?

GOP candidate Gary Burgess of Anderson said he wants educators to stop speaking in politically correct terms and for teachers to have more freedom to teach as they see fit. “If people are not willing to stop being politically correct and say it like it is, we’re in trouble,” he said.

Burgess also has called for the NAACP to end its boycott of South Carolina, which began in 1999 in opposition to the Confederate flag, then flown on the State House dome. The flag was moved to the State House grounds, an African-American monument was built, and the state now celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Memorial Day. All of those actions achieved a compromise, Burgess said, saying the NAACP should end its boycott and assist underachieving black males in the state’s schools.

GOP candidate Don Jordan of Columbia, a math professor at the University of South Carolina, said college should be more affordable.

“We have to stop tuition increases in the state of South Carolina,” Jordan said, adding that the state has closed the door on higher education on a large population of South Carolinians who cannot afford it.

The superintendent and Department of Education have no role in college tuition rates, but Jordan said that if elected, he would work with the Legislature and be persuasive about the issue.

Republican candidate Elizabeth Moffly ran for state superintendent in 2006 and lost to Superintendent Zais in a runoff in 2010, making this primary her third try for the post.

Moffly advocates a 10-point grading scale, which, for example, would make a grade of 90 to 100 count as an A. Moffly also wants more than just one kind of high school diploma offered to S.C. students, advocating college-prep and vocational diplomas. She said the biggest issue facing students is that education is about seat time instead of learning.

Moffly said her platform has not changed much from her previous runs for the post. She said she was addressing education standards when “nobody understood what standards of learning meant.”

“You know what they say: ‘Three times is a charm,’ ” said Moffly, who lives in Awendaw in Charleston County. “So maybe this is my year.”

Democrats have a chance?

While not as crowded as the GOP race, the Democratic primary also could entail a runoff. Four candidates – including a former S.C. State University dean and a current state representative – are running for superintendent.

In 2010, all three state-level primary races with four candidates led to runoffs, Whitmire said. But the one state-level primary in 2012 with four candidates did not have a runoff, he said.

Superintendent of education is the last statewide post that was held by a Democrat, giving the party’s nominee hopes of winning in November.

One of the Democratic candidates has received attention by proposing that South Carolina legalize marijuana to help pay for the education system.

“Our schools are working well, but they haven’t been given the dollars that they’re supposed to be given,” said Sheila Gallagher of Florence.

Gallagher wants the pros and cons of marijuana explained to voters. Then, she said, legalization should be put to a vote through a referendum. The money that could be raised by taxing marijuana sales would go to schools, including paying for teacher raises, she said.

The other Democratic candidates are proposing more conventional ideas to improve the state’s schools.

Montrio Belton, who was raised in Abbeville but lives in Fort Mill, said he would address persistently failing schools by declaring a state of emergency in those schools, allowing the state to take over their operation.

He said he would give parents the option of sending their children to other schools and provide state transportation to do so.

Belton also said student growth should be measured by assessing a child’s level at the beginning and end of each school year to see if the child has progressed. “South Carolina’s entire evaluation system is broken,” he said.

State Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, said he is running for superintendent because the state now has a fragmented vision for the future of education.

Govan said his vision is for a bottom-up approach, involving communities in schools. Businesses, churches, nonprofits and other groups need to provide services schools cannot, he said.

In his campaign, Democratic candidate Tom Thompson of Forest Acres is highlighting the struggle of retaining teachers in rural school districts. Thompson, a former dean of graduate studies at South Carolina State University, said the reasons teachers leave rural districts need to be addressed, including the lack of social life in those communities.

Thompson said he would push the Legislature to make public education the state’s No. 1 priority.

The state should fully fund the “base student cost,” the amount it gives school districts for each student, Thompson said. For next year, S.C. House and state Senate budget proposals call for schools to get $2,120 per pupil, $622 a student less than the amount called for by state law.

“If we are able to determine how much it costs to provide a quality education ... then we should provide that amount of money to the schools,” Thompson said, adding he would work with schools to identify ways to cut costs and not refuse any federal dollars.

Thompson also holds out hope that a Democrat could be the next superintendent.

“The chances of a Democrat taking the post this time are extremely good,” he said. “The climate is right for the right Democrat to be successful.”

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