South Carolina voters next year will elect a new state superintendent of schools for the first time since 2015, as education issues stoke divisive and controversial political debates that show no sign of simmering. With the open state superintendent seat, along with the governor’s race and congressional races on ballots, how will education affect South Carolina’s 2022 election season?
Schoolkids and their classes have long been the battlefield for adults’ culture wars, from the 1925 Scopes trial over teaching evolution to more recent fights over books like the memoir, Fun Home. But State Superintendent Molly Spearman’s tenure is winding down as students, teachers and families trudge out of the pandemic that created classroom chaos that wore on even the toughest educators.
Those experiences will leave a mark, said Steve Nuzum, a Columbia teacher and research director for SC for Ed.
“Teachers are even more exhausted than before, more under attack thanks to fake controversies and the ongoing pandemic and working in schools that are more understaffed than any time during my 15-year career,” he told the City Paper via email.
Education is often a top issue among voters, but recent frenzies put teachers and students in the spotlight as politicians look to stir up voter bases.
Just this month, Gov. Henry McMaster waded into the culture war du jour, becoming the latest GOP governor to take aim at Gender Queer, an illustrated memoir in some school libraries that includes graphical depictions of sexual acts. Republicans in Virginia and Texas have also seized on the book.
McMaster isn’t the only one in S.C. Charleston-area Republican state Rep. Lin Bennett filed a bill last week that would severely limit classroom instruction regarding sex and gender identity, as well as penalize teachers judged to have omitted details from materials or interjected personal beliefs, among other things.
Local school board and city meetings have also become showdowns for anti-mask parents this fall, ratcheting up the energy around classroom issues.
Education controversies even bubbled up in a discussion of what to do with the former monument to John C. Calhoun, when one city commissioner zeroed in on the 1619 Project, a New York Times series examining early American racism that conservatives have vowed to preemptively block from school curricula. And when Charleston City Council was debating how to handle recommendations to root out systemic racism in the city, all it took was a mention of the 1619 Project and critical race theory to ultimately sink any earnest discussion of what to do.
But even as the state narratives mirror national talking points, College of Charleston political science professor Kendra Stewart doubts it will trickle up to affect top-ticket races.
“In general, the other statewide constitutional officers’ races do not garner much attention or attract their own following enough to influence the governor’s race,” she told the City Paper. “I do not think that a more conservative school superintendent candidate would bring out enough supporters to do anything for the governor’s race — but you never know in S.C.!”
It’s a critical time for state schools, Nuzum said, as education faces pressure from reform-minded groups intent on expanding acceptable uses for taxpayer money within private schools.
“I think public school systems are at an inflection point: Either the public will step up to defend them, or we’ll collectively let a minority of community members and outside interest groups damage them in order to push agendas like privatization,” Nuzum said.
The leader of one of those groups Nuzum said, is Ellen Weaver, the president of the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute think tank who has already announced she will run to replace Spearman.
Palmetto Promise’s policy pitches don’t stray too far from rank-and-file conservative talking points, but focus heavily on education.
In an op-ed Sunday in The State kicking off her campaign, Weaver pledged to uproot the “one-size-fits-all system” by cutting bureaucracy and shifting education dollars.
“Divisive political agendas,” Weaver wrote, “have no place in our classrooms.”
But with S.C. schools living on scraps for a generation, those deficiencies can help drive the objectives of groups like Weaver’s, Nuzum said.
“These interests rely on failures in understaffed, micromanaged and underfunded schools,” he said, “to push the narrative that the best solution is vouchers or private takeovers.”