Politics & Government

Where was Molly? Roasted for skipping rally, SC ed chief a ‘scapegoat,’ aide says

‘Where’s Molly?!” chant breaks out at SC teacher rally

As Sen. Mike Fanning speaks and SC teachers prepare to march to the State House, the mention of Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman draws boos and a "Where's Molly!?" chant.
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As Sen. Mike Fanning speaks and SC teachers prepare to march to the State House, the mention of Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman draws boos and a "Where's Molly!?" chant.

The Buzz: The State’s sometimes irreverent look at S.C. politics.

One of the most frequently mentioned names at Wednesday’s historic teacher march was not even there. And her absence, according to some of the 10,000 S.C. school teachers and their supporters who did show up, was a big part of the problem.

Two days before the march, Molly Spearman, the head of the state Education Department, took a public stand against teachers leaving the classroom. Teachers were “walking out on their obligations” by skipping school to advocate for themselves at the State House, Spearman said.

But according to state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, it was Spearman who “turned her back” on the state’s teachers.

“You were intimidated into not coming today. You were belittled into not coming today. Your own superintendent of education shamed you into not coming today,” Fanning told the crowd to boos. “You deserve to be welcomed to your state department by your state superintendent, but she turned her back on you.”

“Where’s Molly? Where’s Molly?” the marchers chanted, a refrain that picked up again and again throughout the more than two-hour rally.

So where was Molly? She was in a classroom at Lexington’s Midway Elementary School, one of the more affluent schools in the Columbia area. The school received an “excellent” rating on the state’s 2018 school report cards, and less than one-in-five students lives below the poverty line. She was subbing for a music teacher at Lexington 1 who was out that day, the Education Department confirmed to The State.

Herself a former music teacher, Spearman taught five music classes Wednesday, and watched students during breakfast, lunch and the pickup period after school.

Spearman also reached out to Lexington-Richland 5 and Richland 2 about substituting opportunities, before both districts and five others closed schools during the rally, her spokesman Ryan Brown said.

Spearman doesn’t disagree with what teachers were advocating for on Wednesday, Brown added. She just opposes a method of protest that took away from classroom instruction.

“Anyone who has followed her career knows her record on mental health, on class size, on increased funding,” Brown said. “She has become a scapegoat, and if that’s what they need, then so be it... (but) I don’t think anyone can say she doesn’t support teachers.”

Roasted on social media

On the Facebook page for SCforEd, the grassroots teacher group that organized Wednesday’s rally, Spearman’s critical statement about the rally was not well-received.

“’I support you, but...’ is not a statement of support,” once commenter wrote. “Be sure to let anyone else who does this know exactly that. There are many ‘Molly’-types out there who believe they are being supportive and yet don’t support the basic right of protest when all other methods have failed.”

Many others predicted Spearman would not win another term if she runs for re-election in 2022.

The superintendent was also criticized on social media over the decision. One Twitter user took Spearman’s statement she “cannot support teachers who walk out on their obligations” and crossed out all the words besides “I cannot support teachers.”

“Just in case @Molly_Spearman is subbing for an 8th grade social studies class during @SCforEd’s #AllOutMay1, we’re currently learning about the General Textile Strike of 1934,” tweeted Crayton Middle School teacher Daniel Stetson. “Mill workers in SC were dissatisfied with low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions.”

Spearman’s stance even got attention beyond South Carolina. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made an apparent reference to Spearman and other state officials when she spoke on a conference call with protesting teachers on Wednesday.

“Some in the executive branch have even questioned your commitment to your students,” Warren told the teachers. “In this educator’s opinion, they don’t get to question your commitment if they have failed to meet theirs.”

But Brown, the department spokesman, said the facts don’t support that assertion. He said starting teacher pay on average is up 18.5% since Spearman took office in 2015, while teachers have seen across the board pay increases of 7% and five standardized tests have been eliminated. She has also been a major advocate of the education bill that made its way through the S.C. House earlier this year.

He suggested if teachers want to continue to advocate at the State House, it might be worth factoring into the school calendar next year.

“Maybe we need to build it in as a day of advocacy, so parents don’t need to take a day off work,” he said.

South Carolina education superintendent Molly Spearman, along with Gov. Henry McMaster and house speaker Jay Lucas met in a unified front to pass an education bill.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.