Editorial: Belton is SC Democrats’ best choice for education superintendent

05/28/2014 9:00 PM

05/28/2014 5:57 PM

MONTRIO Belton talks about not being sure the state needs to be spending more on the public schools, and he talks about the need to give parents more options about their children’s education, and he speaks in dramatic terms about the cost of those schools that are failing to provide children with an adequate education.

“Some mother in South Carolina this morning was legally required to send her child to a school that was designated by the state as persistently failing,” he says. It is a school, he says, “that has failed three generations of that family,” and if she does not send her child to that school, then she could be prosecuted.

We’ve all come to know what to expect next in this sort of speech: the demand that we throw public money at private schools, to give that mother choices — choices that wouldn’t really exist under the so-called “scholarship” programs that are popular in some circles.

But Dr. Belton’s answer is not to throw money at private schools. His answer is not to lull the public into a false belief that it’s OK to give up on our public schools because private schools will take care of any children whose parents care enough to send them there.

Like the other candidates facing off in the June 10 Democratic primary for education superintendent, he makes it clear that he opposes these tax-diversion schemes, and not just because they steal money from the public schools but also because they don’t in fact provide children with a better education — at least not the poor children whom supporters claim they want to help.

Unlike the other Democratic candidates, Dr. Belton understands that the problem with the private-choice movement isn’t that it proposes to give parents more options. It’s that it proposes to do it outside the schools that we own and we control and that we can require to take all students, rather than cherry-picking the best, and that we can require to meet the standards that our state sets out, rather than whatever standards the school chooses to meet. He is a determined advocate of giving parents more options within our public schools, like he did as a middle school principal who created three targeted learning academies, and like he did as a state Department of Education official who helped schools develop single-gender, Montessori and other alternative programs.

Unlike the other Democratic candidates, Dr. Belton does not see more money as essential to solving the problems that plague some of our schools. He doesn’t say it’s not needed. He says he doesn’t know whether it’s needed, which is a refreshingly honest answer to a question that generally gets a knee-jerk response from the left and the opposite knee-jerk response from the right and so never gets carefully analyzed.

While a lot of government has gotten smarter as funds have been drained away, our Legislature has made it difficult and in many ways for our schools to do that. We have so many requirements for how each dollar must be spent that schools haven’t been able in many cases to find smarter, more efficient ways to educate our children. We suspect that our state needs to be spending more on education, particularly for impoverished children who lack the parental support that all children should have, but we don’t know that for a fact. And neither does Dr. Belton, who wants to streamline the funding process and make it more transparent so that we can figure out what is needed.

The Fort Mill education consultant also wants to eliminate seat-time requirements for students and hours-per-day requirements for schools and move to a competency model, where students can earn credit for demonstrating they have mastered the subject matter. He’s enthusiastic about dual-credit programs that let students earn college credit in high schools, and he says most people don’t grasp the significance of the career-and-technology-center element in the education equity program that Gov. Nikki Haley essentially stole from Democrats’ agenda.

He is not a typical Democratic candidate. But typical Democratic candidates haven’t had a lot of luck in South Carolina in recent years. And while he is much more open than the typical Democrat to experimentation with ideas often advocated by Republicans, his basic values and beliefs fit very comfortably within the party. Democrats would do well to nominate him to lead our schools.

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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