Spearman announces her 2016 education plan with then-Gov. Nikki Haley | Credit: Official Governor's Office Photo by Zach Pippin

State Superintendent Molly Spearman’s announcement this week that she wouldn’t seek reelection was an early surprise, but not particularly unexpected. 

She’s made progress in upgrading the state’s perennially limp education system the last few years by helping to provide much-needed boosts to teacher pay, update the school bus fleet and consolidate some small districts, which should lead to better education in those areas.

But in the recent months of the pandemic, she struggled with her own Republican Party in efforts to keep students and teachers safe. Whether it was about mask mandates or virtual schools, the General Assembly and Gov. Henry McMaster always seemed to be poking their fingers in school business that should have been left to the state’s constitutional officer elected to deal with schools.

A few politicos reportedly already are scrambling to figure out whether they’ll run for Spearman’s job, which likely will take on a new importance in 2023 for one reason: It will soon pay more. Spearman currently earns $92,007, but thanks to a recent change in the law, the job’s salary soon will be set by the Agency Head Salary Commission. That means the new superintendent will certainly earn six figures, not five — probably in the $250,000 range. That, in and of itself, will draw lots of candidates.

Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said the next superintendent should be a strong leader who always asks, “Is it good for the children?” 

“It’s crucial that this person has education experience and can hit the ground running,” she told Statehouse Report. “We had deficiencies in literacy and math prior to COVID and we need someone that will communicate with educators on the best strategies to ensure South Carolina students are receiving the best education possible.”

We hear through the grapevine that several education and Statehouse leaders are considering a run for state superintendent, including some district superintendents. 

Two names that consistently crop up are state Rep. Neal Collins, a Pickens County Republican who has served in the General Assembly since 2015, and Ellen Weaver, president and CEO of the Palmetto Promise Institute in Columbia. It’s the think tank founded by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint to push conservative ideas.

Collins, a lawyer, confirmed he is exploring a bid for Spearman’s job: “Serving on the [House] Education Committee, Children’s Committee, Education Oversight and House Oversight over the past seven years, I witnessed Superintendent Spearman serve our state with grace in extremely difficult times,” he told Statehouse Report. “The future of our state is education and our state deserves a student-focused leader.”

Weaver also confirmed her interest in the job, saying she had been approached by a number of people about it and was strongly considering it.

“Our next superintendent must be focused on ensuring that every child receives an excellent education, empowering parents to make decisions for their children and providing the very best support to teachers,” she said in an email. “COVID has laid bare education faultlines that have been growing in South Carolina for decades. It is going to take bold vision, brave leadership, and a real team effort to transform these stubborn obstacles into the opportunities our students deserve.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson insisted it was crucial for his party’s candidate for the job to be an educator. He complained that Republicans had been hurting education for years by pushing charter schools, vouchers and other ways to lower public investment and support in public education.

“Democrats believe in education. If you do not have an educated citizenry, you’re never going to bring in good jobs,” Robertson said. 

Andy Brack is publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.