Politics & Government

June 21, 2014

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

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

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.

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