They also both say they want better schools and programs for students who live in the state’s rural, poor counties. Both Columbians also say the state’s growing business sector must play a bigger role in improving student achievement in K-12 schools and colleges.
But McMaster, 71 and Smith, 51, differ in what they say it will take to make S.C. schools better and how much money it will cost to get better academic results from the state’s students.
McMaster, the GOP incumbent, says eliminating poverty — through better jobs and wages — will help eliminate the state’s education woes in the long run.
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On the other side of the aisle, Smith has adopted an approach similar to two of his Democratic predecessors — former Govs. Dick Riley and Jim Hodges — calling for smaller classroom sizes, project-based learning and looping, where students and teachers move from grade to grade together, to create better student outcomes.
McMaster considers himself first and foremost the jobs governor, hoping his first full, four-year term will position the state for a greater economic boom.
Smith likens himself South Carolina’s next “education governor,” aligning with Riley and Hodges — the only two Democrats elected governor in the last 50 years.
But do voters care enough about education to let the issue decide their vote in a contentious midterm election dominated by President Donald Trump?
Some pundits doubt it.
“If you’re looking for a magic issue that will, sort of, spark the electorate, you’re not going to find it with education,” said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard, former political consultant for GOP congressmen.
‘Teacher pay must go up’
Incumbent McMaster and 22-year legislator Smith agree S.C. teachers must be paid more.
But neither has said how much more pay for teachers they would request in their first full term as governor.
“It would depend on how much and the year,” McMaster told The State Wednesday. “But the teacher pay must go up. I got a lot of thoughts on it. But I can’t give you a number now.”
“I’m going to arm our teachers ... with better pay,” Smith said, adding he will reserve judgment on specifically how much more. Smith said he is working on a plan to get teachers — who after a 1-percent pay increase this year make an average of just above $50,000 — above the current Southeastern average of $50,119 a year. “We need to show that we value our teachers, and they deserve better pay.”
But those pay increases will not be paid for with tax hikes, both candidates say, contending the added money needed can be found within the state’s existing budget by re-prioritizing programs and funding.
The state’s roughly 50,000 teachers and their families — a large voting bloc — will be watching.
Low pay, heavy workloads and teach-to-the-test class practices have driven thousands of teachers out of S.C. classrooms. Last year, nearly 5,000 teachers quit S.C. public schools. And, this year, S.C. public school teachers have become more vocal publicly about their concerns, showing up at the State House in red T-shirts — part of a national display of unity among teachers — and campaigning for more support on social media.
Smith Friday backed a request by the state’s two teacher associations — the Palmetto State Teachers Association and the S.C. Education Association — and the S.C. State Employees Association to use the state’s $177 million one-time budget surplus to pay bonuses to teachers and state workers.
Smith — who attended a May rally of state workers and teachers with his lieutenant governor-running-mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster — has the endorsement of the one teachers’ group, the S.C. Education Association. (The other — Palmetto State Teachers Association — does not endorse candidates.)
Though he lacks the backing of a teachers’ group, McMaster — whose running mate is Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette — says he is listening to teachers.
Wednesday, he said he has met a number of school officials and teachers, who have shared their struggles with him. In one instance, McMaster said he met with a superintendent of an unidentified, poor S.C. school district.
“I asked her, ‘What would happen if a ... good, solid manufacturing plant were to move into that district, into that county. Say, 500 jobs?’ “ McMaster recalled.
“She took off her glasses and put down her pencil and said, ‘That would change everything.’”
‘Fight for our schools’
The answer to fixing S.C. public schools is not always spending more money, both candidates for governor say.
If elected, McMaster says he wants to see more school districts — there are now 82 — consolidate, saving money on administration.
Smith also supports school district consolidation on a case-by-case basis.
McMaster also wants less student testing, more coding and computer science instruction in every school, and stronger collaboration between high schools and the state’s technical college system.
He also has promised to request more state money to put an armed law enforcement officer in every S.C. school. This year, he got lawmakers to add $2 million to the state budget that went into effect July 1 to hire more school resource officers. But putting an officer in each school could cost at least $40 million more a year.
McMaster also supports private-school choice and expansion of public-school choice options, proposing in his 2018-19 executive budget more money for public charter schools.
“The main thing I want to achieve is to have everyone ... receive the education (that is) their right to have,” McMaster said Wednesday. “The cause of most of our problems in education is poverty. Once you understand and come to it from that viewpoint, then things start making sense.”
Smith, too, wants to cut the number of tests that students take and plans to work to reduce classroom sizes if elected.
He also wants more S.C. schools to include project-based learning and looping, where teachers move from grade to grade with their students. Smith also has called for greater access to high-speed internet in schools, particularly in the state’s more rural areas.
“There are so many ways to improve outcomes for our schools that don’t require money, (but) that require initiative, innovation and leadership,” Smith said.
In November, South Carolinians also will decide whether the next S.C. schools superintendent is elected or picked by the governor, starting in 2023.
McMaster supports letting the governor pick the superintendent, who would join the governor’s cabinet.
Smith, though, says he has concerns, worried that a governor could pick a superintendent who lacks the necessary qualifications.
“You could, essentially, have South Carolina’s version of (U.S. Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos, that’s not really interested in helping South Carolina public schools grow and improve,” he said. “(I want) someone who’s going to fight for our schools.”
Both candidates also have concerns beyond K-12 schools.
Both say they are concerned about rising college tuition costs, sparked, in part, by state budget cuts for higher education since the Great Recession.
McMaster says he will work with the state agency that oversees colleges, lawmakers and other stakeholders to ensure parents are not spending too much money on their child’s education.
Smith says he supports a plan, drafted by state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, that includes a provision to freeze college tuition for a year.
But, observers say, neither candidate is proposing the radical reforms in education that have proven successful in past elections. Riley, for example, championed a one-cent state sales tax for public education while Hodges pushed for the creation of the lottery to improve schools.
A successful campaign platform on education has “got to be innovative, new, something that provides an enormous amount of leadership,” said Rick Whisonant, a political scientist at York Technical College.
‘Economy, economy, economy’
Do S.C. voters care enough about education for the issue to drive them to the polls in November?
Some doubt it.
South Carolina’s population “is older and getting older by the second,” Whisonant said. “When you look at ... politics concerning age, the older that you get, the less concerned you are about education. Your politics has become more centered around health care ... low taxes.”
In November 2014, when the last governor’s election was held, 16.3 percent of the South Carolinians polled by Winthrop University said education was the most important issue facing South Carolina, narrowly ranking behind only jobs and the economy.
But, this November, national issues are more likely to drive voters to the polls, observers say.
That is why, Clemson political scientist Woodard said, McMaster has paid close attention to job creation and the economy.
“He’s sort of following the (President) Trump script — economy, economy, economy — because, usually, it’s the issue on voters’ minds.”