On Nov. 6, South Carolina voters were correct in saying they wanted to be able to continue voting for the constitutional officer who oversees the largest portion of South Carolina’s state budget and the education of 700,000 of our citizens. The fact that a question that has few defensible arguments for bringing about real improvements to our beleaguered public education system –or improving the level of accountability for doing so – was chosen should tell South Carolina voters a great deal about how seriously our state Legislature desires the public’s input on issues that truly matter to our state and its future.
The public rationale for putting this question on our recent ballot was essentially twofold:
1. It would bring about long-sought improvement.
2. The improvement would occur because it would make the S.C. governor more “accountable” for public education.
Here are just a few of the many reasons that rationale is flawed:
The “Improvement” Argument:
1. We are ranked last. All states, whether they appoint or elect, including our two neighbors who elect this position, are ranked far above us.
2. Appointments vs. elected gives no guarantee of competence, transparency or performance. One has only to look at the history of performance of other state agencies led by appointees to realize that getting a press announcement after the act of appointment is a less desirable alternative to a statewide election that, at the very least, gives voters the opportunity to vet the credentials, policies and ethics of those seeking their vote.
3. Governors and presidents have a long history of making political appointments for many different reasons (eg. donors, loyal campaign workers, ideology, special interest representatives, etc.). Competence is a criterion too often missing or near the bottom of the list.
The “Accountability” Argument:
1. There is absolutely no evidence that S.C. voters have ever held our governors accountable for the performance of agency appointees. One has only to look at the past and present performance concerns regarding our state’s social services, or health and environmental controls, or corrections, etc., to see that voters seldom, if ever, link the electability of a governor to an agency head’s performance.
2. How many S.C. agency heads can you actually name? State agency heads operate largely as anonymous state government “managers.” The only exceptions are those who some voters come to know through the election process every four years.
So, why did our Republican controlled state Legislature choose to place this particular question on our ballot this year – as opposed to questions that could actually address substantive change and improvement for our state? Hard to know for sure; but, the fact that this office is the last statewide office won by a Democrat (2006) and the persistent and growing public sentiment for elected officials to do “something” about our falling education rankings and seriously plummeting teacher supply and morale may give some insight. If this constitutional change had been approved, it would provide something tangible to point to that could have further ensured Republican dominance of statewide offices; required no additional revenue; and, it could be touted as “a solution” for the next four years (before implementation) and for at least another four years after that (first implemented term) before it would become obvious that it has failed to produce the promised results. Eight years of helping placate calls for “action” on a vexing problem; that is a “lifetime” in political terms – more than adequate.
As for other questions that could be, and should be, placed on our ballots, here are a few examples that would actually matter: ending gerrymandering; providing recall legislation; enacting term limits; establishing a minimum statewide teacher salary; legalizing gaming to provide new state revenue; approving ranked choice voting; enacting meaningful ethics reform; and the list continues.
When will we see truly substantive questions put on our ballots – instead of politically motivated inquiries that matter little? The answer is blunt; but true. Only when enough of us demand it, and not before.
Dr. Rex served as the S.C. superintendent of education from 2007 to 2011.