Cindi Ross Scoppe

How to hold a governor accountable for education

SC Education Superintendent Molly Spearman says forcing them to campaign makes many great would-be superintendents hesitant to apply for the job. She’s right.
SC Education Superintendent Molly Spearman says forcing them to campaign makes many great would-be superintendents hesitant to apply for the job. She’s right. tdominick@thestate.com

SENATORS listened respectfully Thursday as the head of the S.C. Education Association told them that the idea of letting the governor appoint the director of the state Education Department was “a distraction.”

Then the other teacher in the room, freshman Sen. Mike Fanning, explained in a way the lawyers in the room really couldn’t, at least not with the same credibility, why the notion of political accountability was anything but a distraction.

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“As a history teacher,” he said, “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.”

And so it was that the two Republicans and the one Democrat on the subcommittee approved the resolution to bring South Carolina into line with the 38 states where the chief education official is a professional rather than a politician.

That vote for S.137, to ask voters in 2018 to amend the state constitution to have the governor appoint the superintendent, came an hour after a bipartisan House subcommittee unanimously approved an identical measure, H.3146, along with H.3036, which sets requirements for gubernatorially appointed superintendents (our elected superintendent simply must be at least 18 years old and a registered voter). Another bipartisan Senate subcommittee had unanimously approved a qualifications bill, S.27, the day before.

I don’t mean by this to suggest that we are just a few perfunctory votes away from one of the most significant reforms to our antiquated governmental structure … ever. As we’ve seen too many times, bills can sail through subcommittees and die in full committee. They can sail through full committee and, at least in the Senate, die on the calendar without a moment’s debate, let alone a vote. All that’s required is for a single senator to say, you know, I don’t like that bill, and for his colleagues not to insist on giving the bill one of a precious few priority debate slots.

But last week’s votes were a good start to a year when — despite a promised push for the change by Education Superintendent Molly Spearman and Gov. Nikki Haley (pre-U.N. nomination) — I wasn’t holding my breath for any significant reforms to the government that was designed centuries ago with one goal above all others: to keep power away from any governor.

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Mr. Fanning did a very nice job explaining the importance of being able to hold someone accountable for the progress — or lack thereof — in our schools. Beyond that, as Ms. Spearman and Ms. Haley explained to legislators in November, electing a superintendent independently of the governor can prevent us “moving the state forward with a common vision for education priorities” and result in “incompatible positions (and) a lack of coordination.” Which is something we’ve seen more often than not in the 30 years I’ve been watching governors and education superintendents who were, more often than not, incompatible even when they came from the same political party.

What a fragmented approach does more than anything else is that it protects the status quo.

Sen. Shane Massey

“What a fragmented approach does more than anything else is that it protects the status quo,” said Sen. Shane Massey, who chaired Thursday’s Senate subcommittee meeting, “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 two years — puts more pressure on the Legislature, he said, to “move on some stuff.” Which we need.

The Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the legislation at 11 a.m. Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee at 2 p.m. Tuesday and the Senate Education Committee at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Meeting details are at scstatehouse.gov.

Ms. Spearman recognized during her 2014 campaign that South Carolina was missing out on the most talented candidates because they weren’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.

But for all the logic and practicality from supporters, opponents of this change have a powerful weapon of their own: hyperbole.

“Our concern,” Education Association President Bernadette Hampton told Mr. Massey’s subcommittee, “is that we lose our right as citizens of this state, as taxpayers of this state, to have any say …. It’s like we’re moving to a dictatorship.”

She noted that the Education Association’s research had revealed that both North Carolina and Georgia elect their superintendents. She could have added, had she been so inclined, that California does as well, along with its left-coast near-neighbor Washington state and a dwindling handful of other mostly Western states.

Which means we must be off to the Gulag in the vast majority of the states, since either the (elected) governor appoints the education superintendent or the superintendent is selected by the state board of education — which is appointed by the (elected) governor.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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