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Most statewide political candidates are busy enough before election day with strategizing, raising money, shaking hands, attending gatherings, politicking and holding press conferences that they don’t feel like they have enough hours in the day.

But Republican Ellen Weaver, who handily won Tuesday’s primary runoff to be her party’s candidate for state superintendent of education, has an additional worry: She must get a master’s degree to hold the office she’s seeking.

But if she doesn’t, what then? It’s kind of unclear, but lawsuits would be likely.

A qualification added

Weaver

Back in 2018, state Republicans pushed a statewide ballot referendum to transform the constitutional office of state superintendent from an elected position to one appointed by the governor.  

But part of the effort to get the referendum on the ballot was to approve job requirements for an appointed superintendent so the state would have a framework from which to appoint the position if the referendum passed. (It didn’t as more than 60% of voters said they wanted the superintendent to be elected.) 

All of the qualifications – except one – were contingent on the position becoming appointed. But the one qualification that was enacted regardless of the referendum was for the state superintendent to have a master’s degree.

According to the relatively new state law, the state superintendent must have “the minimum of a master’s degree and substantive and broad-based experience in the field of public education including, but not limited to, service as a classroom teacher, principal, other school or school district administrator, school district superintendent, or other education policy making body at either the state or local level or any combination of them” or “the minimum of a master’s degree and substantive and broad-based experience in operational and financial management in any field of expertise including, but not limited to, finance, economics, accounting, law or business.”

Weaver, who did not respond to inquiries related to this story, is president and CEO of the Palmetto Promise Institute, a statewide think tank that dabbles in education, energy, health care and tax issues.  Weaver, once a key adviser to former conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, has not been a teacher or served in a classroom or “education policy making body.” She has, however, served as chair of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, a state-appointed group that evaluates education but doesn’t set policy.

Should Weaver be able to run?

While the new qualification has long been public record, it didn’t get much attention until March when The Post and Courier published a story. According to the Associated Press, “several candidates dropped out while others like Weaver pledged to obtain advanced degrees.”

In April, Weaver said she started an advanced degree in educational leadership at Bob Jones University and promised to finish it by November. According to media reports, the program at university – where she also got her undergraduate political science degree – usually takes a year to 18 months to complete, but students can set their own pace.

In June, the state Attorney General’s office issued a 9-page legal opinion on whether the S.C. Election Commission potentially would be caught in a controversy of having to figure out whether Weaver could be a candidate. The opinion essentially absolved the election commission, saying it was up to political parties to certify candidate qualifications. The parties must certify that a candidate “meets or will meet by the time of the general election, or as otherwise required by law, the qualifications for the office for which he has filed.” The opinion goes on to say that candidates who don’t meet or will not meet qualifications for which he has filed “shall not be nominated and certified.” 

What’s next?

At this point, Weaver, who has long pushed using public funds to pay for private schools, may be in the clear for the November election – if she gets the master’s degree. But at least three possibilities exist:

Lawsuit before the election. The attorney general’s opinion is only an opinion. Some say advocacy groups could bring a lawsuit before the November election to try to find Weaver ineligible for the ballot. Possibly at issue: Whether the Bob Jones advanced degree was something crafted for Weaver to qualify.

Lawsuit after the election. If Weaver wins but doesn’t have a master’s degree by the election or by January when the superintendent is to be sworn in, there likely would be a lawsuit challenging the qualifications of state law or a suit over whether she was disqualified from serving.

“Rules are rules and they would be enforced by the court system, if there’s an issue,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat who is Senate minority leader..

Vacancy. If Weaver didn’t meet the qualifications, the state election commission might intervene and say the position was vacant, which could trigger a new statewide election.  

On Tuesday, Weaver didn’t appear bothered by the requirement for a master’s degree.  

“Tonight we saw that voters understand the real qualification for this job is leadership and a strong backbone,” Weaver said in the AP story. “That said, I will fully fulfill all the legal obligations to hold this job. I will complete my master’s degree in educational leadership in October ahead of the general election.”

Weaver faces Democratic candidate Lisa Ellis, a teacher who founded a statewide teachers’ group, and Green Party candidate Patricia Mickel, a teacher. Both reportedly have master’s degrees.

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