Yes, This Race Matters

Education Superintendent Could Set Tone for Statewide Policies
By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

With additional reporting by Dan Cook and Eva Moore

As South Carolinians go to the polls on June 10, they’ll be staring down a long list of candidates for superintendent of education. With incumbent Mick Zais declining a bid for a second term and 12 major-party candidates vying to replace him — eight in the Republican primary and four in the Democratic one — the historic array of choices might daunt the primary voter who hasn’t paid much attention.

And, let’s be honest, that’s most of us.

Given the air of hopelessness that’s long infected South Carolina’s K-12 education discussion, not bothering with this race is lamentable but understandable. When a passionately argued lawsuit challenging equity in education draws embarrassing national attention to the neglect of impoverished, predominantly black school districts — but both the courts and the Legislature leave the matter to fester rather than addressing it — it feels like the shot-callers around here aren’t too concerned. (The Abbeville County School District v. South Carolina case was first filed in 1993.) There’s no “Corridor of Shame” without shame.

By the Numbers

Total candidate contributions | Cash on hand
Molly Spearman: $128,446 | $57,633
Sheri Few: $60,005 | $12,449
Sally Atwater: $57,383 | $37,205
Meka Childs: $57,094 | $39,095
Amy Cofield: $39,022 | $12,164
Montrio Belton*: $9,229* | $29,251*
Elizabeth Moffly: $6,400 | $5,580
Sheila Gallagher : $6,300 | $936
Don Jordan: $5,900 | $1,788
Gary Burgess: $5,795 | $2,600
Jerry Govan: $100 | $9,073
Tom Thompson*: $0* | $0*

*No updated pre-election report filed as of press time.
Note: Contribution totals exclude loans and candidates’ personal funds.

But maybe now is a good time to bother. Long a bastion of middle-of-the-road consensus, the state Department of Education — an office once run by Democrats Jim Rex and Inez Tenenbaum [online copy corrected] — has instead become a Petri dish of conservative experimentation under Zais, elected along with Gov. Nikki Haley in 2010. In his one term, Zais has moved aggressively to support public charter schools, online education and other school-choice initiatives; criticized what he sees as federal overreach, including Common Core standards; and rejected criticism of the state’s resistance to teaching medically accurate sex education.

At stake now is what happens next. Few observers expect the superintendent position to revert to Democratic hands (or go to the American Party candidate who will also appear on the fall ballot), but the question of which Republican takes the June 10 primary is fraught with repercussions for the state. Zais took a once-sleepy agency and steered it into an activist, tea party-oriented direction. And he’s made it clear that he wants it to continue in that direction when he leaves — Zais has endorsed one candidate in the GOP primary, his former deputy superintendent Meka Childs, and explicitly warned voters about another, Molly Spearman, identifying her as a former Democrat and opponent of school choice. Childs, who once worked for Gov. Mark Sanford, has also picked up the endorsement of Jenny Sanford.

Beyond these two perceived frontrunners are a host of other candidates, among them Sally Atwater, widow of the legendary late GOP political consultant Lee Atwater; businesswoman and three-time GOP superintendent candidate Elizabeth Moffly; tea-party firebrand Sheri Few; Democrat Sheila Gallagher, who famously called for marijuana legalization to fund schools; and Democrat Montrio Belton, who won the endorsement of The State and, like the other Democrats in the race, supports Common Core standards. 

As the tea party strand of Republicanism has receded nationally, it remains to be seen whether the same thing will happen in South Carolina. From contemporary debates over Common Core standards and school choice to seemingly historical debates that have come back from the 19th century to infect the 21st — such as creationism versus evolution — the education race, much like U.S. Lindsey Graham’s re-election, offers a window into where state politics are and where they’re heading.

The Context

For the past several years, public education in South Carolina has been severely hampered by recession-challenged revenues. But tax revenues have returned to the state’s General Fund, back up to pre-recession levels, meaning lawmakers have money to spend again. And Gov. Nikki Haley has transitioned from wielding an ax over state education funding to urging lawmakers to increase it. Consequently, this session she got fellow Republicans in the Legislature to pass a $160 million increase targeting poor, rural districts and third-grade literacy. Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson (R-Richland) has termed this year’s spending package an “education budget,” with additional money tentatively allocated to the expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten for children in low-income households.

All that said, this year’s new spending on base student costs doesn’t even get the state back up to 2005-06 levels. That year the General Assembly allocated $2,290 per student. For 2014-15, it’s allocated $2,120 per student, up $19 from the previous year. So, despite the hype coming out of the State House, there have not been particularly bold steps toward fixing public education. Instead, legislators have just decided the state needs to do a little bit better than it has during recent demoralizing years of extreme austerity.

The issue that drew legislators’ attention to education this year was not money so much as it was Common Core standards. Developed starting in 2009 by a wide coalition of state leaders and educators, the standards were intended to set consistent expectations for what every child should know, bring the United States in line with best practices around the world and emphasize critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. However, both conservatives and liberals have attacked the standards. Conservatives tend to argue that Common Core undermines local autonomy and increases the role of the federal government in education; liberal critics tend to say that Common Core standards undermine teachers in the classroom and rely too heavily on standardized testing.

In South Carolina, legislators have voted to withdraw the state from the standards and develop a local replacement. Gov. Haley supports the move — which means the standards are indeed on the way out in South Carolina — but some superintendent candidates are nonetheless basing their campaigns on opposition to the standards.

So, where does the state superintendent come into play?

According to statute, it’s the State Board of Education — a body appointed by legislative delegations in each of 16 state judicial circuits — that is responsible for education policy in the state. The superintendent serves as secretary and administrative officer to that body; oversees all public money allocated to schools; and manages the State Department of Education, which carries out the policies of the State Board. It’s also an advocacy role for public education, with the superintendent responsible for communicating needs and challenges to the public, but with no direct control over policymaking.

Despite its limited statutory role, the tone and direction a superintendent sets can have a significant impact on the Legislature, on the State Board and on the terms of public debate. 

Zais certainly set a tone, one not always well received by teachers and administrators, many of whom felt that Zais — with his stinging public criticisms, rejection of federal funds and calls to lift caps on classroom sizes — was working against them.

At stake now is whether South Carolina elects a superintendent who continues to antagonize the educational establishment — or who works to make peace with it.


For those who want a firebrand in the superintendent’s office, Sheri Few of Kershaw County fits the bill and then some.

Few has been carpet bombing the South Carolina education debate for well over a decade; in 2000, she founded the nonprofit South Carolina Parents Involved in Education to fight for abstinence-only against sex education and against proposed updates that call for the teaching of medically accurate information. She’s run twice for House District 79, and twice been rejected. But her positions — in favor of the teaching of creationism (called “intelligent design” by its proponents), as well as against Common Core standards and the United Nations’ Agenda 21 — play well among a small, hardcore group of right-wingers.

This election cycle, her GOP opponents have accused her of violating election law by campaigning on the back of her nonprofit and misleading voters to believe the state superintendent has the authority to dismantle Common Core.

Few denies any wrongdoing with regard to campaign financing. With regard to Common Core, however, there can be little doubt that her jihad against it is the primary issue driving her candidacy. But her rejection of Common Core goes far beyond mainstream complaints about the standards, such as that they “take a one-size-fits-all approach, create a de facto national curriculum, put too much emphasis on standardized tests and undermine teacher autonomy,” as an NPR story summarized the issue.

Instead, Few takes a direct shot at the content of what’s being taught in classrooms. In a video of Few addressing Christian homeschooling families in mid-May, she blames science for corrupting her son.

“Because of what he’s learned in science, he argues with his mother about manmade global warming,” she laments. “He argues with his mother about whether America is great, and sometimes I feel like I sacrificed my children on the altar of public education policy, because I left my children in public school so I could fight for truth in education for all children.”

Few goes on to reveal that her true mission is to “get government out of the education business in South Carolina” and institute a wide-reaching voucher program to send kids to private schools.

Meanwhile, Anderson County’s Gary Burgess — having served on faculties and administrations at numerous high schools and colleges — is significantly more qualified than Few. Nonetheless, his rants against “political correctness” and “the liberal destroy-and-kill machine” put him into the category of divisive ideologue alongside Few.

While that sort of rhetoric is to be expected in a GOP primary, it remains to be seen whether it’s what voters want in their superintendent of education.

Grassroots Candidates

In a more idealistic and less money-driven world, candidates like Elizabeth Moffly and Don Jordan might stand a reasonable chance of reaching office. The reality, however, is that these candidates — a successful businesswoman and a popular University of South Carolina math professor, motivated to run by their experiences with schools and young people — are political outsiders unable to raise the cash required to win.

For Moffly, it’s her third run for state superintendent. Zais edged her out in a 2010 primary runoff.

She appears to have learned a lot since first running as a mother frustrated with No Child Left Behind in 2006. She’s been a vocal opponent of Common Core — but, unlike Few, her criticism is underpinned by detailed policy knowledge.

Moffly touts a four-point education reform plan that includes (1) offering three routes — college prep, special ed and vocational — to a high school diploma, (2) lowering South Carolina’s graduation credit requirements from 24 to 19 to align with the Commission of Higher Education’s recommendation and save half a billion dollars, (3) putting South Carolina schools on a 10-point grading scale like the rest of the country, and (4) revising learning standards to focus on reading, writing and math.

She also advocates using grants to allow children to attend private school, but appears wary of vouchers’ potentially segregating effects, having told The Greenville News, “I don’t like this class warfare.”

Meanwhile, Don Jordan’s entry into this race was met with a chorus of “Who?” — but his shoestring candidacy has been one of ideas.

Coming from the university world, Jordan’s concerns expand beyond K-12. He wants to see more college level courses offered to high school students to help them save on future college tuition costs. He also says he’d use the superintendent’s office to advocate against tuition hikes. He supports expanding early childhood education and raising teacher pay and incentives to lure good teachers to poor, rural school districts.

Plus, he takes a more balanced approach to Common Core than many of his opponents. Yes, it has flaws, he says, but there was good intent behind the new standards — not a liberal conspiracy to destroy the nation. The challenge now is to adopt new standards that will conform to the textbooks the state had already purchased when it planned to implement Common Core, Jordan says.

Democratic Contenders — the Also-Rans?

Before 2010, when Mick Zais defeated Frank Holleman — a former deputy secretary of education at the U.S. Dept. of Education — the state superintendent of education’s position was a reliably Democratic-held office in South Carolina, even as the governorship and other statewide offices moved inexorably toward the GOP in the past two decades. With Zais having completed the GOP takeover of all statewide offices, however, few if any state political observers are predicting a comeback for the Democrats.

Still, that hasn’t stopped a few from trying.

Though running as a Democrat, Montrio Belton should have at least some appeal on the other side of the aisle. He worked as a teacher and principal in South Carolina schools for nearly two decades, and headed the Office of School Transformation at the state Department of Education under Zais, promoting initiatives like magnet programs and charter schools. His campaign focuses on both conservative principles — eliminating financial inefficiencies; seriously expanding public school choice, which he says would improve the state’s dropout rate — and more classically liberal ones, such as restoring funding levels. He would also simplify school funding formulas and improve the existing teacher evaluation system, making it more transparent. Like all three of his Democratic opponents, Belton supports the Common Core education standards. He won the endorsement of The State newspaper.

Sheila Gallagher won exactly one news cycle during the campaign: In early May, she called on South Carolina to legalize recreational marijuana to help fund schools.

“It isn’t about getting high,” Gallagher said, according to WIS. “It’s about investing $188 million [the amount she suggests could be raised annually by taxing pot] every year until we have the best schools in the nation.”

Her opponents were quick to condemn the suggestion, with Belton saying “I’m sure my opponent, who’s a former health and P.E. teacher, would know that marijuana has been demonstrated to be a gateway drug.”

Beyond that moment in the spotlight, Gallagher has built her campaign around her nearly 40-year career as a teacher and position as former president of the South Carolina Education Association. She’d use additional funding — whether from taxing marijuana or adopting the recommendations of a shelved state report on unnecessary tax exemptions — to reduce class sizes, increase teacher pay and training, add more guidance counselors and provide more technology and materials to classrooms.

S.C. Rep. Jerry Govan says his 21 years in the state Legislature give him the experience to lead the Department of Education. He’s also worked in Orangeburg County schools, coordinating dropout prevention and attendance programs. As a candidate, he’s calling for improving the department’s morale and image, and touts “innovative approaches and best practices” without many specifics. He criticizes Act 388, a property tax cut passed in 2006, for jeopardizing school funding.

A former South Carolina State University professor, Tom Thompson’s platform is based on “student achievement through increased rigor,” which sounds like a back-to-basics approach to education — but he also talks a lot about improving collaboration between the Department of Education and educators, and between educators and parents. School safety and anti-bullying also rank high on his priority list, as does expanding early childhood education. He’s recommended a 2 percent sales tax hike to fund schools. He’s been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

Frontrunners, Plus One

Lexington attorney and parent Amy Cofield is not among the frontrunners, but she doesn’t get her own category either. Her brother and law partner is Tommy Cofield, the political donor Gov. Haley appointed to the USC board in her 2011 ouster of Darla Moore.

Cofield might be the least visible candidate in the GOP field. That said, she appears earnest in her concerns but low on ideas. She calls for classrooms “free from Washington politicians” so that students “may reach their full God-given potential,” but offers little in terms of specific policies aside from opposition to Common Core. She did, however, afford viewers a glimpse of leadership potential during a televised May 27 debate when she called out Zais for recommending Algebra II be dropped from the curriculum at a time when college instructors are decrying our students’ lack of academic preparedness. She repeatedly touts that her background is in business, law and education, having a master’s degree in the latter; saying it makes her uniquely qualified for the office. She also likes to mention her friendship with Gov. Haley.

Sally Atwater would not be in the race were it not for her deceased husband, Lee Atwater, the political spinmaster most associated with taking American politics to new lows. As a valued adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and then chairman of the Republican National Committee, Lee Atwater accrued massive political capital that’s lately come in handy for his widow. She’s pulled down high-profile out-of-state endorsements from George and Barbara Bush, Newt Gingrich and the Christian Coalition, and her campaign finance report shows a good percentage of her fundraising coming from the D.C. area. It remains to be seen whether GOP primary voters will support her just because the national GOP establishment does.

For qualifications, Atwater points to political appointments she received during the peak of her husband’s power in Washington, D.C., and to the past two years, which she spent teaching special education in Colleton County. She supports tax credits [online copy corrected] to send students to private school and privatization of the state’s derelict school bus fleet.

Molly Spearman, head of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, is the strongest advocate for traditional public schools in the Republican primary, meaning she prioritizes public schools attended by the vast majority of South Carolina’s children over the establishment of new charter schools and voucher systems that would compete with those schools for very limited resources. A former music teacher, assistant principal and member of the S.C. House, Spearman believes that the education system is in need of updating to make it more personalized and responsive to changes in the economy and society. She also believes parents should be empowered to send their children elsewhere, including private school, if a local public school is failing them.

The biggest knocks against Spearman among Republicans are that she’s opposed school choice in the past and that she used to be a Democrat. Zais has taken a particularly strong stand against her candidacy.

In an editorial last week, Zais wrote, “Once elected, there’s nothing to prevent her from leaving the Republican Party and declaring herself a Democrat again. Since 2004, 95 percent of Spearman’s political contributions have been to Democrats, many who ran against Republican candidates who were supporters of school choice.”

While some of the party faithful will take this criticism seriously, a lot of South Carolinians remain wary of school choice; it’s why Democrats were able to hold onto that statewide office longer than any other. Spearman’s fate lies with how many such Republicans will turn out for the Republican primary.

Meanwhile, Spearman also has managed to anger some public education advocates on the opposite side of the political spectrum, who feel she has caved into conservatives on too many issues, school choice among them.

Meka Childs is not only a frontrunner, but also the anointed successor of Zais.

A former education adviser to Gov. Mark Sanford and deputy superintendent under Zais, Childs — a strong proponent of many forms of school choice — would most represent a continuation of the Zais regime. While most candidates have railed against federal overreach, Childs criticizes Columbia overreach — somewhat ironically given her own background as adviser to Gov. Mark Sanford and deputy to Zais. Childs says state Department of Education guidelines have a micro-managing effect on classrooms and she wants that control returned to the local level.

Childs blames education associations like Spearman’s for Zais’ difficult relations with stakeholders, but nonetheless says those relations need to be improved.

“What I’d do is try to build on what he was doing in bringing about change, but try to figure out where is the breakdown in communication,” she told Free Times last week. “A place where I might do things differently would be to make sure that early on I’m communicating proactively, directly to educators, directly to parents, taxpayers and whatever stakeholder groups I can.”

Given her background in education policy at the state level, Childs is clearly qualified for the position — but it’s unclear whether teachers and administrators would welcome a change in tone or simply view her leadership as yet another indignity heaped upon them.

Asked specifically about Zais’ push to lift caps on classroom sizes, Childs says, “I’d walk through that in a very deliberate process.”


A Choice That Matters

With so many candidates in the race, the election to become superintendent of education isn’t easy for voters to keep track of.

Nonetheless, the issues in the race matter: From Common Core standards to school funding, sex education, classroom sizes, charter schools and school choice in general, the next superintendent could play a significant role in what direction South Carolina takes in the coming years.

Will the state focus on improving its public schools — or will it throw its attention and resources toward giving students a way out of them?

Those who have been watching the Corridor of Shame debate for the past two decades hope it will be the former.

“As of September 2012, when we last argued the case, things have not gotten any better,” Carl Epps, attorney for the plaintiff districts, said last week. “I can’t think of any single outcome that was improved since 2003-2004 when we tried the case.”

On Election Day, voters face a dizzying array of names on the ballot for superintendent of education. But the choice they’re making boils down to a fairly simple question: Will Mick Zais’ style of tea-party-flavored education policy prevail, or will 2014 be the year the establishment strikes back?

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