Cindi Ross Scoppe

Could the governor pick SC education superintendents? That’s up to 4 senators

SC voters currently have to elect the person to run the state Department of Education, even though most don’t even have a clue who’s on the ballot.
SC voters currently have to elect the person to run the state Department of Education, even though most don’t even have a clue who’s on the ballot. tglantz@thestate.com

UPDATE: With just minutes to go before the Legislature adjourned for the year, the SC Senate voted 38-6 to let voters decide in November whether to let governors appoint the state education superintendent. H.3146 had already been approved by the House, so the Senate vote was the last step necessary. This is by far the most significant thing lawmakers did this year, and it’s the biggest potential win in years in a decades-long effort to give governors more authority over a government that is still controlled by the Legislature.

I’m still not quite sure how it happened. I was talking to Sen. Greg Hemrbee less than an hour earlier about his plans to try again next year to get the question on the ballot. But Sen. Gerald Malloy, who held the floor a good bit of the final two hours of the session, preventing a vote on the legislation, suddenly said something about lawmakers working together cooperatively, and made a very bizarre unanimous consent motion to pave the way for the final vote … and just like that, it was done.

I will write more about this soon … I hope tomorrow.

Below is the column I wrote on Wednesday about the legislation:

WITH THE CLOCK ticking toward adjournment at 5 p.m. on Thursday, the S.C. Legislature doesn’t have much to show for the 2018 session. That could change if four senators decide to support what would be one of the most important improvements to our state government in decades.

After being left for dead months ago (years ago?), legislation that would let the governor hire the director of the state Education Department is the closest it has ever been to clearing the Legislature. But supporters need those four more senators to support the change.

Of course you know the director as the superintendent of education, who is currently elected every four years by voters.

Despite the fact that the education superintendent’s job is to run a state agency, not to set policy.

Despite the fact that South Carolina is one of just 13 states where the superintendent is elected.

Despite the fact that most voters couldn’t even tell you who the superintendent is, much less have a clue who the candidates are when they decide who it will be.

Despite the fact that, as Aiken Sen. Tom Young reminded his constituents in a newsletter earlier this week, “All six restructuring studies of state government since 1920 have recommended that the Superintendent of Education be appointed by the Governor to increase accountability, efficiency, and coordination in public education in South Carolina.”

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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How to hold a governor accountable for education

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On Tuesday night, senators voted 26-6 to ask voters in November whether they wanted to change the state constitution to let the governor hire and fire the superintendent, starting in four years. Normally, that would have been a more-than-adequate margin of support. But a resolution to hold a constitutional referendum requires the support of two-thirds of the members of the Senate, or 30 votes.

What that means is that the 13 senators who didn’t vote essentially voted against letting voters weigh in on this question.

Those 13 senators are Paul Campbell, Brad Hutto, Darrell Jackson, John Matthews, Margie Matthews, Thomas McElveen, Floyd Nicholson, Luke Rankin, Glenn Reese, John Scott, Nikki Setzler, Vincent Sheheen, Kent Williams.

Sens. Hutto and Scott didn’t participate in confirmation votes just before and just after the vote on the referendum, although Sen. Scott spoke against the referendum during Tuesday’s debate; Sens. Matthews and Rankin participated in a confirmation vote just after the vote on the referendum, but not the one before it. The other nine participated in the votes before and after this one, which strongly suggests but does not prove that they were in the chamber but decided not to vote.

Not voting on a constitutional amendment has the very same effect as voting “no,” but it allows senators to tell constituents that they didn’t actually vote against it.

The happy news is that the two-thirds requirement can be met on either second reading, which occurred Tuesday night, or third reading, which could come today — if the Sente agrees to take that final vote. That means voters will have an opportunity to make this change if just four of those 13 senators agree to support it.

Voting against the legislation, by the way, were Sens. Karl Allen, Kevin Johnson, Marlon Kimpson, Gerald Malloy, Mia McLeod and Ronnie Sabb.

One of the most persuasive advocates for the change is our current education superintendent, Molly Spearman, who 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.

She and other supporters also recognize that the candidates for governor run on grand promises about fixing education in South Carolina, that voters cast their ballots assuming the winner will be able to make those changes, and then are disappointed to learn that the governor has virtually no say over education — even over the internal workings of the Education Department.

As Democratic Sen. Mike Fanning explained in a subcommittee meeting last year: “As a history teacher, 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.”

But supporters didn’t talk about any of that Tuesday night. Sen. Greg Hembree reminded his colleagues that in early 2017, he worked with opponents to come up with qualifications that a gubernatorially appointed superintendent would have to meet, and the Senate unanimously passed a bill, S.27, that required 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 any field, including finance, economics, accounting, law or business.

“We reached an agreement that if we could get qualifications, the referendum would be supported,” he said. And so in the year since then, he and other supporters worked to convince the House to pass S.27. “I said if you’re gonna change it, don’t bother sending it back to us, because we made a deal, and if you can’t live with our bill, we’re done with it,” he said.

And just to make sure no one in the Senate missed the point he was making about living up to their end of the deal, he added: “One thing any successful legislator learns is once you make a deal, you’ve got to stick to your deal.”

Last week, the House finally passed the Senate’s bill, without any amendments.

Which, with some fancy procedural maneuvering, brought the Senate to the House-passed legislation to hold a referendum, H.3146.

The brief debate included opponents arguing that the legislation hadn’t been studied enough — never mind those six studies that Sen. Young referenced, or the fact that this legislation has been introduced and studied and talked about pretty much every year for decades. It concluded with Sen. Gerald Malloy reminding his fellow opponents that it didn’t matter if more senators voted for the bill than against it, as long as it didn’t reach that 30-vote threshold. Which it didn’t.

If you know any of those 13 senators who sat out Tuesday’s vote, now would be a good time to ask them to vote for the referendum — so you can have your say come November.

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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