Politics & Government

June 19, 2014

Democrats in state schools chief race mostly agree

The Democratic candidates for state superintendent of education mostly agreed during a debate Thursday about how they would approach leading the Department of Education. But, where they differed, the distinctions were clear.

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.

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