On Tues. Nov. 6, voters across South Carolina will be asked a long and convoluted question about the future of the role of Superintendent of Education.
More specifically, voters will check “yes” or “no” on whether candidates for the job should be voted on by the general public or appointed by the governor, with confirmation from the state Senate, starting in 2023.
Amendment 1 reads as follows:
Must Section 7, Article VI of the Constitution of this State, relating to state constitutional officers, be amended so as to provide that beginning in January 2023, or upon a vacancy in the office of Superintendent of Education after the date of the ratification of the provisions of this paragraph, whichever occurs first, the Superintendent of Education must be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate; to provide that the appointed Superintendent of Education shall serve at the pleasure of the Governor; and to require the General Assembly to provide by law for the duties, compensation, and qualifications for the office?
The S.C. Department of Education oversees policies for K-12 schools statewide.
Currently, the state constitution specifies that the Superintendent of Education, along with the state’s Attorney General, Treasurer, Comptroller General, Commissioner of Agriculture, and Adjutant General, are to be elected for four-year terms by qualified voters. [content-2] That last position is now appointed by the governor after 56 percent of voters approved a similar constitutional amendment in 2014.
Not everyone welcomes this year’s proposal.
Jon Hale is a co-chair of the Quality Education Project, a Charleston-based organization that works to encourage equitable education policy.
So far, the grassroots group has mostly focused on its 2018 school board endorsements. When asked about Amendment 1, Hale says approving it would go against the organization’s mission.
“It does not align with QEP values to consolidate power with one person in a position that has historically worked against the interest of all students, particularly students of color and poor communities,” he said in an interview with the City Paper.
In a YouTube video uploaded by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and former Democratic Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum speak in support of governors appointing their superintendents.
“This is a needed change to set a foundation to build a stronger voice for public education in South Carolina,” says current Republican Superintendent Molly Spearman in the video.
Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked South Carolina 48th in education, beating only Louisiana and New Mexico. The lowest rankings were for pre-school enrollment and eighth grade math and reading scores. South Carolina fourth graders came in at 47th in the nation on the reading section of the NAEP, down from 39th in 2015, according to the Post & Courier.
Some proponents of Amendment 1 argue that transferring power from voters to the governor would de-politicize the office and allow superintendents to focus solely on policy.
“South Carolina is missing out on the most qualified candidates,” said South Carolina Chamber of Commerce President Ted Pitts in a press release sent by the state Department of Education. “Few people are prepared to put their livelihoods on hold for a year to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and undergo the rigors of the campaign trail.”
Hale, who is also a professor of American education at the University of South Carolina, says the position is political no matter how it’s filled.
Governors often appoint state officers based on their views, and in a red state where the battle over “school choice” constantly looms, he wouldn’t have confidence in the final selection.
“We’re not in a position where this would actually work,” he said. “This is asking for an incredible amount of trust where it doesn’t exist.”
Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association, says the governor already gets to appoint the 18 members of the Education Oversight Committee, which sets testing and reporting standards for the state’s schools.
“We are saying to vote no,” she says. “You could potentially get someone who has no education background should the governor be allowed to appoint that.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster expressed support for the amendment in a tweet that touted the benefits of having a superintendent “working in lock step with the entire executive branch on a unified vision for education excellence in South Carolina.” [embed-1] A spokesman for Rep. James Smith, a Democrat running against McMaster, says that the Richland County lawmaker and his running mate, Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, proposed an amendment in the state House that would have required gubernatorial appointees to have substantial public school experience. It did not pass.
“We don’t need a Betsy DeVos in South Carolina,” James said in a statement, referring to the current U.S. Secretary of Education, a billionaire former charter school lobbyist who was appointed by President Donald Trump shortly after his election in 2016.
Critics often point to the damaging effects of “school choice” initiatives on public schools in Devos’ home state of Michigan.
East is worried that, should the amendment pass, the minimal criteria for an appointee could lead to a similar situation.
“The fear is that, at the federal level, you have someone in charge whose children never attended public school, so they’re really out of touch with what really goes on in the classroom,” she said. “You’re asking someone to coach football who’s never played football.”
Kathy Mannes, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, says her group has used the proposed amendment as an opportunity to inform rather than endorse.
“I don’t think many people in the education community are in favor of it,” she said.
In an emailed statement, S.C. Democratic Party chair Trav Robertson signaled that he opposed the amendment based on McMaster’s views about safety in schools.
“Henry McMaster wants to arm teachers, instead of raise their pay,” he said. “As my old boss Major Grady L. Patterson Jr., who flew Mustangs off of Iwo Jima and helped save the world from fascism and imperialism, used to say: We should always be concerned when someone wants to eliminate a free press and eliminate our right to elect people to offices.”
The S.C. Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
We understand and appreciate the motivation for putting Amendment 1 to a vote and agree that it is likely well-intentioned. The state legislature has failed to effectively reform education for a generation, and this amendment would allow those same people to have control over the requirements for the job and be tasked with rubber stamping whoever the partisan governor (likely of the same political party) selects to fill the position. The current method of popularly electing the state superintendent isn’t perfect, but neither is this amendment. —Editorial Staff
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