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Guest column: Will SC education superintendent be elected or appointed?

July 30, 2018

It was a tiny exchange in the Henry McMaster-John Warren debate that was remembered, if at all, for giving Mr. McMaster another laugh line.

The governor was explaining that the key to improving education is economic growth and sort of vice versa when he announced: “And now that I will be in charge of appointing the superintendent of education, we’re going to get a lot more done in South Carolina in education reform.”

When debate moderator Charles Bierbauer corrected Mr. McMaster by pointing out that governors wouldn’t be able to appoint the state education superintendent until 2022, Mr. McMaster shot back: “That’s right, but I’m starting now.”

Actually, Mr. Bierbauer’s correction didn’t correct the entire error. More significantly, Mr. McMaster and other supporters do our cause no good when they gloss over this crucial fact: Governors will only be able to appoint the state’s education chief if voters approve that change in November.

And that is by no means certain.

The S.C. Education Association – which listed stopping this legislation as one of its nine victories in 2017 – says that its members overwhelmingly oppose an appointed superintendent. Granted, teachers constitute a small portion of S.C. voters, but a lot of people will listen to them on this topic.

I suspect their opposition has as much to do with how the association worded the question as with actual opposition (teachers, after all, do remember elected Superintendent Mick Zais). But the fact is that most people start out assuming that changing an elected position into an appointed position is a bad thing.

They gloss over the burden it is to have to learn enough about the candidates and the issues to make an informed choice for governor. And attorney general. And secretary of state. And comptroller general. And treasurer. And agriculture commissioner. And education superintendent. But once they think about it, even voters who consider themselves knowledgeable enough to handle all that can feel differently about whether all the other voters will make smart choices.

As we get closer to November, I’ll talk more about why we’d be better off if we could force governors to be more involved in public education by making them accountable for public education. But for now, I want to talk about what all of the people who already agree are going to do to make this happen. Because it’s not going to happen just because people who read newspaper columns and editorials want it to happen.

Recall that four years ago, even with the active support of the elected adjutant general and Republican governor and the Democratic lieutenant governor and the chairmen of the state Republican and Democratic parties, almost 44 percent of voters still said no to changing the constitution to let governors appoint the adjutant general. Six years ago, just more than 44 percent said no to letting governors appoint their running mates, rather than having the lieutenant governor elected separately.

I want to talk about gubernatorial candidates Gov. Henry McMaster and Rep. James Smith, who are on record supporting the change. Both of them need to campaign for the change – not just individually but together. They can talk about how appointing the superintendent will not just give governors a stronger voice in reform but also obligate them to use that voice. How it will make them accountable for the third of the government they currently have no responsibility for.

As Sen. Mike Fanning explained it at a public hearing, if the governor hires and fires the education superintendent, then teachers would be able to say to candidates for governor, “if you say you’re pro-public education, when we elect you, we expect you to do something about it.”

I want to talk about the 86 other House members and 38 senators who agreed to put the question to voters. Those 124 state leaders need to be out on the campaign trail explaining that we can’t require anything of an elected superintendent but that he or she be a qualified voter, but we can – and will, if voters say yes – set tough educational and experience requirements for appointed superintendents. How an elected superintendent who turns out to be a problem can’t be removed from office for four years, but an appointed superintendent can be removed immediately.

I want to talk about Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, whose support was vital to legislative approval. Ms. Spearman needs to spend the next five months encouraging people not only to vote for her but to make her South Carolina’s last elected superintendent. She can remind voters that she recognized during her 2014 campaign that South Carolina was missing out on the most talented candidates because they aren’t willing to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, take a year away from their professions and go through the rigors of campaigning in order to run for the job.

And I want to talk to all the people who are reading this column and nodding in agreement. Even if you can’t command a public audience, you still can talk to friends and family and neighbors and co-workers. As I and others write in greater detail about why we need to let governors appoint the superintendent, send our columns to everybody you know; talk the subject up. Because people aren’t going to vote yes on the ballot question if we don’t convince them it’s a good idea.

Cindi Ross Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or 803-771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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