If you like having politicians run important state agencies instead of professionals who actually know what they’re doing, you should vote “no” on Constitutional Amendment 1 on Tuesday. Ditto if you think it makes sense that the governor has no more control over South Carolina’s most important duty than any one of the 124 House members.
But if you’re planning to vote “no” because you’re afraid of who a governor might appoint as superintendent of education, or you don’t want to lose your vote, I’d ask you to consider these reasons to vote “yes” instead:
1. It allows governors to be players in our state’s most important duty. Forty cents of every state general fund dollar goes to the schools, but a governor has less control over our schools than a member of the House, even though he represents 124 times as many people. Although he can make suggestions, his only formal power over education is the ability to veto legislation. He can’t take a single positive action on his own, because the person who runs the state Education Department is a separately elected official.
The superintendent might be someone who gets along with the governor, as the current one seems to do, or not, as her predecessor seemed to do. It begs the question: If the governor has no control over the agency that spends 40 percent of our general tax dollars and performs the state’s most vital function, what, exactly, does he govern?
2. It forces governors to make education a priority. The flip side of giving governors more power is forcing them to be more involved in public education, by making them accountable for public education.
The best explanation of this that I’ve heard came from Sen. Mike Fanning, a Fairfield County Democrat who used to be a public school teacher
“As a history teacher,” he told a public hearing last year, “the most frustrating thing to me was that everyone running for governor was pro-public education, and then when they became governor, there was no way as a teacher to hold them responsible, because their response was, ‘I can’t do anything about that.’” Education superintendents, meantime, would tell teachers the lack of progress wasn’t their fault because, for instance, the governor rejected their budget requests.
What teachers need, Mr. Fanning said, is the ability to say to candidates for governor, “if you say you’re pro-public education, when we elect you, we expect you to do something about it.”
3. It reduces legislative hegemony. Probably more than any other state, the Legislature dominates South Carolina. Our Legislature divided the executive branch between nine statewide elected offices in order to keep us away from the American ideal of having three co-equal branches of government. Letting the governor appoint the education superintendent gets us closer to this ideal.
Reformers have been trying to get this question on the ballot since 1991, when then-Gov. Carroll Campbell launched his campaign to overhaul our government that answered to no one. Although the Legislature recently allowed governors to appoint the lieutenant governor and adjutant general, the education superintendent was always the holy grail, because 40 percent of the state budget goes to education.
4. It creates better-informed voters. Political scientists have argued for more than a century that the “long ballot” guarantees uninformed decisions. Forcing voters to decide on seven separate statewide elections (on top of federal, legislative and local races) means most offices won’t get the attention they need. And any time we spend on these down-ballot races leaves us less time to study the more important races.
Every serious analysis of state government (GOP Sen. Tom Young says there have been six, although I think he left out a few) have recommended abandoning the 18th-century tradition of holding public elections for a long list of executive officials and instead allowing the governor to appoint nearly all state agency directors.
5. It lets us set requirements for the superintendent. South Carolina’s elected superintendent must be 1) 18 years old, 2) registered to vote and 3) elected. Or, put another way, the person who runs our most important state agency does not have to demonstrate a single qualification for the job. She simply has to get more votes than any of her competitors — none of whom, likely, is the person anybody would actually hire for such an important job.
There are constitutional problems with setting tougher requirements for who can be elected, but we can set pretty much any kind of qualifications we want for appointed officials. The Legislature passed a bill this spring that requires nominees to have at least a master’s degree and “substantive and broad-based experience” in either public education or operational and financial management in such fields as finance, economics, accounting, law or business. That new law also requires Senate confirmation for appointed superintendents.
6. It helps us get rid of bad superintendents. If we elect a superintendent who turns out to be a disaster, we’re stuck with that person for four years, unless he or she breaks the law. An appointed superintendent serves at the pleasure of the governor, which means he or she could be replaced immediately.
7. It improves the pool of candidates. Molly Spearman has been one of our best education superintendents, which is important to keep in mind when you listen to one of her biggest arguments for becoming the last elected superintendent. During her first campaign, in 2014, she says, she recognized that South Carolina was missing out on the most talented candidates for the job because they aren’t willing to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, take a year away from their professions and go through the rigors of campaigning in order to run for the job.
8. It means better education policy. As Ms. Spearman and then-Gov. Nikki Haley explained to legislators two years ago, electing a superintendent independently of the governor can result in “incompatible positions (and) a lack of coordination,” which can prevent us “moving the state forward with a common vision for education priorities.” We’ve seen that more often than not in the 30 years I’ve been watching governors and education superintendents.
“What a fragmented approach does more than anything else is that it protects the status quo,” Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey told me after one debate, “because if everybody’s disagreeing, there’s not going to be a whole lot done to change anything.” Having the education superintendent and governor on the same page all the time — not just during rare political alignments like we’ve had the past four years — puts more pressure on the Legislature, he said, to “move on some stuff.” Which we need.
9. It improves the company we keep. South Carolina is one of just 13 states that elects the superintendent. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, but it means we ought to consider which other states do it. North Carolina and Georgia elect their superintendents, and their public education results are not stellar. So does California, along with its left-coast near-neighbor Washington state and a dwindling handful of other mostly Western states.
10. It’s an insurance policy against worst of the worst. You say Betsy DeVos; I say Mick Zais. The rallying cry of many appointment opponents is that President Trump showed us the danger of an appointed education chief when he named Ms. DeVos U.S. education secretary. They apparently forget that just before electing Ms. Spearman, S.C. voters elected Mick Zais, who not only supported the sorts of policies that Ms. DeVos supports (he works for her now) but was … disagreeable. Highly disagreeable.
I’ve known seven S.C. governors, and I don’t believe a single one of them would have appointed Mr. Zais. Many would have appointed Ms. Spearman – or, as Ms. Spearman is quick to suggest, someone more qualified than her. Which is to say that we’ve got a lot better chance of electing a Betsy DeVos than having one be appointed by a governor.
Find one or two or even five or six of my arguments unconvincing? Fine; disregard them. Vote “yes” because of all the arguments you find convincing. And send this column — or just the parts of it you find convincing — to all your friends. This could be the best chance you’ve had in years to improve public education in our state.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State