Mick Zais, the current Republican superintendent of education, is not running for re-election. Three parties have put forward candidates to replace him. Here’s what they had to say.

Ed Murray (American)

Running on the ticket of the American Party, a moderate party founded by former state superintendent Jim Rex and family physician Oscar Lovelace, Orangeburg high school administrator Ed Murray is leaning on his experience teaching in South Carolina public schools as he runs for state superintendent.

“That 15 years I’ve been in public schools, I’ve really been researching what’s been going on,” Murray says. In his previous position teaching at the tiny, rural North Middle/High School, Murray was asked to help raise End of Course exam scores in physical science.

“We played with a lot of things and had to develop the students in terms of work ethic,” Murray says. He also made a simple change to the school’s curriculum pacing guidelines, opting to teach physics first instead of chemistry. He says that one tweak made a big difference and gave students a better knowledge base for chemistry.

When it comes to teacher evaluations, Murray says he favors returning power to school administrators and “treating them as the professionals they are rather than micromanaging them.”

Murray also says the state could stand to scale back its student testing programs.

“I believe in testing, I do believe in data, but I don’t believe we have to test every year,” Murray says. “If we tested, for example, at third, sixth, and ninth grade, we would get the data that we need to see how our students are performing, but we’d also save a lot of money to help the students that are performing behind grade level at those points.”

In more rural counties like Orangeburg, Murray says schools should look into offering more virtual classroom options, although he favors virtual curricula that still involve an in-person teacher. He also wants to expand options for specialty schools in STEM, business education, career and technology education, and the arts in each region of the state.

“Particularly at the high school level, I’d like for students to be able to choose to go to school based on their interests rather than their geography,” Murray says.

Molly Mitchell Spearman (Republican)

With 18 years in the classroom, one year as an administrator, four terms in the state legislature, and nine years leading the S.C. Association of School Administrators, Molly Mitchell Spearman has seen the ins and outs of the school system at every level. As a music teacher, she recalls moving from state-of-the-art Chapin High School to an aging school in Saluda where she had to bring her own record player to a trailer without air conditioning.

“I’ve seen and I appreciate the disparities we have in South Carolina, and that’s very close to my heart and it’s always on my mind,” Spearman says.

When it comes to innovations that could bring struggling schools up to speed, Spearman says she has “real concerns” about the idea of private-school vouchers, but she favors some nontraditional techniques she’s seen around the state. At the high-poverty Cleveland Park Elementary School in Spartanburg, for example, school starts earlier in the summer and students learn leadership skills under the Leader in Me program, which is based on the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At Saluda Elementary School, she says teachers have closed literacy gaps for African-American boys by holding struggling students back rather than let them progress to the next grade.

“You don’t move on until you’re ready, but it’s not viewed as a punishment. It’s doing what’s best for the child,” Spearman says.

Like outgoing superintendent Mick Zais, Spearman is a Republican, but she has a few differences of opinion with her predecessor and Republicans in the state legislature. For one thing, she wants to pump the brakes on some changes that came near the end of the Zais administration.

“We’re reviewing and rewriting the standards, we’re getting a new assessment that will be testing how well students do with those standards, and we’re piloting an evaluation program where the result of those standards might affect teachers’ pay. There’s too much happening all at once,” Spearman says.

She also says her leadership style would incorporate more input from teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders.

“The perception was that decisions were made and then these groups were told about it,” Spearman says. “That’s my biggest difference, I believe, is my leadership style. I’ve worked so closely with all of these groups over my career, and I know that when people trust you, you can get things done in a hurry.”

Tom Thompson (Democratic)

As an academic, Tom Thompson has published several papers on the needs of minority and low-income students. As superintendent, he would try to put theory into action.

His plan starts with revising the state’s current “minimally adequate” standard for education. “We have to define what high-quality education looks like and then what it costs, and that will force a change in funding of base student costs,” Thompson says.

A longtime university professor, Thompson already has a relationship with many school administrators in South Carolina — because he taught them. He is currently the Ph.D. coordinator for the college of education at Walden University, but he previously taught at the University of South Carolina and S.C. State, trained administrators at the state Department of Education, and served on committees for the School Administrators Association.

One complaint he says he hears from administrators is that when they call the state Department of Education for policy guidance, they either don’t get answers or they get inconsistent answers depending on who picks up the phone.

“The first question has to be, how do we make this work better?” Thompson says.

Thompson is a supporter of Common Core standards, which were commissioned by governors nationwide to provide similar standards in every state. However, since the Republican-majority legislature voted to rewrite curriculum standards, Thompson says he will encourage the committees writing the new standards to ensure teachers maintain some flexibility in the classroom. “I’ll say to the committees, ‘Use whatever is available.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s connected to Common Core or to something else,” Thompson says.

Still, Thompson says he won’t be afraid to use public pressure to challenge the Statehouse’s priorities.

“I know the governor and the legislature have a hard job, but as state superintendent, I have to make sure the needs of the public education system are met,” Thompson says. “I understand there are competing priorities, but for me this is the priority.”

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