May 27, 2014

Editorial: Molly Spearman is best choice among Republicans for SC education superintendent

THE SUPERINTENDENT of education has to run the Department of Education, a huge state agency that handles nearly half the state budget. This is a job that requires significant administrative experience and knowledge about education.

THE SUPERINTENDENT of education has to run the Department of Education, a huge state agency that handles nearly half the state budget. This is a job that requires significant administrative experience and knowledge about education.

But our Legislature insists that we elect the director of the Education Department, and so this person also must be a policymaker, the chief advocate for public education in our state. That’s a job that requires the ability to present a smart vision for improving the education we provide for children and to work with the Legislature and the governor and the public and local school officials to make that vision a reality.

Molly Spearman is well-qualified for both jobs. And she offers the added advantage for voters in the June 10 GOP primary of being the Republican most likely to win in November. That might not seem like a high hurdle in such a red state, but if there’s one statewide office where voters still might be inclined to vote for a Democrat, this is it.

Ms. Spearman has been a public school teacher, a state legislator and a top deputy at the Education Department and now runs the S.C. Association of School Administrators. It’s a career path that has given her experience with every aspect of the superintendent’s job — something no other candidate, in either party, can boast.

She also has developed the relationships necessary to be an effective superintendent, and she has a smart vision to sell.

That vision starts with the same ideas that our state’s business leaders have embraced for transforming our 19th century model of education to meet our 21st century needs. The idea is to overhaul how we teach children — focusing on subject mastery rather than seat time, and tailoring teaching to meet each child’s individual needs — and what we teach them, with an emphasis on the critical-thinking skills that are essential for competing in today’s world.

Ms. Spearman long has advocated overhauling how we spend education funds, to give districts more flexibility and to acknowledge the fact that it takes more work (and thus more money) to teach impoverished children than their wealthier counterparts, and she has been on board from early on with Gov. Nikki Haley’s initiative to address those problems. As a prominent part of what sometimes gets derided as the “education establishment,” her support was important this year; it could be even more important to have her advocating the plan in coming years as education superintendent.

There are good ideas across the political spectrum for improving public education, but we haven’t made a lot of progress because those on the left fight anything coming from the right, and those on the right fight anything coming from the left. Ms. Spearman breaks that mold.

She opposes throwing public money at private schools but strongly advocates giving parents more choices within the public system. She believes the state needs to have more tools for intervening when local districts aren’t educating our children but understands the need to act diplomatically, lest the efforts be sabotaged. She recognizes that good principals are essential, and wants to help ensure that we have better principals, and that they can act effectively. She says very carefully that school district consolidation should be “supported,” because she understands full well the impossibility of forcing that on districts — or on legislators.

She also recognizes that the governor needs to appoint the education superintendent, rather than forcing candidates to run for the office — which she correctly notes scares away so many capable would-be superintendents — and says she would actively advocate the change.

Perhaps most important, Ms. Spearman recognizes that we have a lot of work to do to provide S.C. children with the quality of education that our state needs them to have, but she also recognizes that our schools are not the complete failures so many would have us believe. She recognizes that education in South Carolina has been improving and that there are many schools and programs that are doing a wonderful job, and she wants to help others emulate them.

Ms. Spearman is not an angry candidate. She’s not someone with an ideological ax to grind. She’s a well-qualified administrator with a deep background in public education and public policy. She sees where we need to transform public education and where we need to tweak it, and she is ready to put forward those ideas and build the public support to make them happen. She is what our state needs, and voters would do well to support her in the Republican primary.

In their own words

We asked the candidates for education superintendent to complete a questionnaire as part of our endorsement process. Read their answers and answers from candidates for other offices here, and read our previous endorsements here.

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