Politics & Government

Should SC’s governor control education? Candidates for schools chief disagree

Molly Spearman and Israel Romero
Molly Spearman and Israel Romero

S.C. schools always are near the top of voters’ concerns when it comes time to elect the state’s governor.

But, now, the governor doesn’t control the state’s Education Department. That job belongs to the S.C. superintendent of education — a post elected directly by the voters, separate from the state’s governor.

On Nov. 6, however, voters will have a chance to change that, by approving a constitutional amendment to end the election of the superintendent and make the state’s schools chief an appointed member of the governor’s cabinet. Voters also will choose who they want to be the state’s schools superintendent for the next four years, whether the constitutional amendment passes or not.

The two candidates for superintendent in November have diametrically opposed views of how the post should be filled.

Republican incumbent Molly Spearman of Saluda — running for her second, four-year term — is urging voters to approve the amendment, which, she says, will tighten standards and increase accountability for the performance of S.C. schools.

But Democratic challenger Israel Romero of Spartanburg argues the change would take control away from voters and hurt S.C. students.

Spearman, first elected in 2014, argues the state’s current system doesn’t place any requirements on the superintendent beyond being a S.C. resident. Also, the challenges of running a statewide campaign may discourage qualified candidates from seeking the job, she says.

“When I decided to run, I checked the Constitution to make sure I was qualified, and it turns out everybody is,” Spearman said. “(But) it requires a lot of skills and experience to run one of the largest agencies of state government and oversee 800,000 students.”

If approved by voters, the new rules would require the superintendent to have at least a master’s degree and “substantive and broad-based experience” in public education or “experience in operational and financial management” in another field.

But Romero is skeptical about any change that would give the governor control of education, given how S.C. politicians have handled school-funding issues in the past.

“Education must keep being directed by a person elected by public vote,” he said. “What they are trying to do is have control. ... The superintendent has to be independent, not somebody who is being given instructions by the governor.”

Romero, a former school teacher in Massachusetts and education professor at Bridgewater State University, wants to focus on closing the gap between more and less advantaged students in different parts of the state. He worries centralizing education policy in the governor’s hands will make worse that problem.

“It’s going to be worse, not better,” Romero said. “It’s going to go for the the benefit of the people who have money, who don’t care about the disadvantaged, the low income, people with disabilities. They’re not going to do anything for them.”

But Spearman worries about potential splits between an elected governor and an elected superintendent. While she says she has had a good working relationship with both Gov. Henry McMaster and former Gov. Nikki Haley, “We could have totally different agendas.”

“If the superintendent is appointed, then you would have to have a unified approach,” Spearman said, and voters will know to hold the governor accountable for the performance of the state’s schools. “The governor has a bigger bully pulpit than the superintendent.”

If the amendment passes in November, the winner of the superintendent’s election will serve a full, four-year term. The governor would begin appointing the schools chief in 2023.

What you will be voting on

Amendment 1: Must Section 7, Article VI of the Constitution of this state, relating to state constitutional officers, be amended so as to provide that beginning in January 2023, or upon a vacancy in the office of superintendent of education after the date of the ratification of the provisions of this paragraph, whichever occurs first, the superintendent of education must be appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate; to provide that the appointed superintendent of education shall serve at the pleasure of the governor; and to require the General Assembly to provide by law for the duties, compensation, and qualifications for the office?

Explanation: A “Yes” vote will require the superintendent of education be appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. A “No” vote maintains the current method of electing a superintendent of education.

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