L-r: Republicans Sally Atwater and Molly Spearman; Democrats Sheila Gallagher and Tom Thompson
South Carolina’s education superintendent races are the sleeper hits of the 2014 primary season, featuring tight Republican and Democratic runoffs and a cast of candidates who’ve all devoted significant chunks of their lives to public education.
Molly Spearman and Sally Atwater tied in the GOP primary with 22 percent each, while conservative firebrand Sheri Few earned 19 percent. That didn’t stop Few from asking Lee Atwater’s widow to step aside, having informed her that she is “woefully unprepared for the job.”
Few’s request got short shrift from the Atwater camp, which was busy touting incoming endorsements from the likes of Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-Anderson) and SC Citizens for Life, tarring Spearman as a party-hopping Democrat and deflecting reactions to an Upstate talk radio appearance that went viral with a little help from the Spearman camp.
Atwater had called into the Russ Cassell Show on Word FM the day after being declared a primary finalist. When the host asked her positions on teaching sex education and creationism in public schools, she punted, feebly, leading him to tell his audience: “What you have just heard is an example of a person running for public office on name recognition only, who is clueless.”
Cassell had previously endorsed Few.
A recording of the interview even appeared on Wonkette, the Internet’s home of American political snark, mocking Atwater’s perceived cluelessness. The Wonkette post acknowledged The Palmetto Scoop, a blog associated with Richard Quinn & Associates, for submitting the item through its tip line. The Quinn firm, an influential inside player in South Carolina politics, is running Spearman’s campaign. (Notably, First Tuesday Strategies, an old Quinn rival, is running Atwater’s campaign.)
Atwater’s campaign told Free Times on Monday its candidate was unavailable for an interview. Her campaign manager, Luke Byars, spoke in her stead.
“It’s a little disappointing seeing Republicans in the Upstate, libertarian types like Russ Cassell, take apart other Republicans. Apparently, that was his desire from the very beginning. We’ll remember it, and don’t plan on being back on his show any time soon,” Byars says.
According to Byars, Few and Spearman are trying to suggest Atwater isn’t qualified — a preposterous notion to Byars: “In Sally Atwater, you’ve got someone who has two degrees from Winthrop University, one a master’s in special education. She’s worked for three Republican presidents, held numerous positions of authority up there. She’s worked for committees in the U.S. House and she’s been a special education teacher in South Carolina schools for over 10 years. She’s raised three kids on her own as a single parent. She’s more than qualified for this job.”
“There’s a reason there’s mud flying: because Molly Spearman is running in a Republican runoff with a record that is not conservative,” Byars continues. “Conservatives split their vote in the primary on June 10, and they’re going to be coming together on June 24 behind Sally Atwater.”
Spearman — who spent 18 years in South Carolina classrooms as an educator, served from 1992 to 1998 as a state legislator and now heads the South Carolina Association of School Administrators — has heard the “stealth Democrat” charge since she declared her candidacy.
“I changed parties in 1995, and I’ve voted in every Republican primary in South Carolina since then, and I’ve done some pretty conservative things in my career as a legislator,” she tells Free Times. “I sponsored the partial-birth abortion ban bill, I got rid of an inefficient car inspection program — the kind of things that Republicans are supposed to do, and now I’m being attacked, so I think it’s unfair.”
Calling from the road somewhere between Myrtle Beach and Spartanburg, Spearman said she was miffed because she’d just heard Atwater wouldn’t be participating in a debate that evening. Nor would Atwater be appearing in a second televised debate.
“It’s about being prepared and being able to speak on behalf of all the teachers, parents and citizens of the state,” Spearman says. “There were so many candidates in the race originally that we never got into much substance [in debates], and I think it’s really important now for the citizens to be able to see us side by side and hear us talk about the issues.”
Asked what a Spearman administration would look like, she replied, “The first priority is going to be to get our high South Carolina standards [in place] and get that Common Core controversy settled for teachers.” (State lawmakers recently voted to phase out the federal education standards.) “I’ve had three calls today from teachers across the state.
There’s a lot of anxiety about changing [standards] again. Yes, we’re changing again, but I promise if I’m elected I’m going to do it well with a lot of good input from teachers across the state, and we’re going to communicate with parents that we’re getting this settled.”
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the rhetoric is more muted and grudgeless. Florence’s Sheila Gallagher touts her 30-plus years experience in Florence District 1’s schools — including her alma mater, McClenaghan High School — and leadership roles at the South Carolina Education Association, where she advocated for teachers at the General Assembly, the Education Oversight Committee and the State Board of Education.
“We need to give our teachers a professional compensation,” Gallagher says. “We need to increase the salary for our educational support professionals. We need to work on what we’re doing with our discipline in the classrooms. We really need to involve more people,” she adds, lamenting that most school guidance counselors are too consumed with administering standardized tests or helping college-bound students apply for scholarships to actually offer counsel to average students.
“I think sometimes we forget exactly how things affect kids so much more than we realize as adults,” she says.
Gallagher and her runoff opponent, Tom Thompson, agree that the main differences in their platforms deal with school financing. Gallagher has proposed looking at marijuana legalization and taxation as a potential new revenue source for funding schools.
She dismisses concerns about “stepping-stone drugs,” saying, “I’m more worried about the drugs in our cabinets that these kids take than I am about marijuana.”
Thompson — a former high school math teacher, high school principal, Education Department staffer, University of South Carolina professor of education leadership and dean at South Carolina State University — says he’d like to see South Carolina figure out a way to fully fund the Base Student Cost and ensure all school districts have equitable and sufficient funding to provide a quality education, “not just minimally adequate.”
“I think we need to look at our tax structure to see where we can make adjustments so that additional funding can be provided for schools,” he says.
When reminded of the persistent lack of political will in the General Assembly to reform South Carolina’s jerry-rigged tax code or fully fund students, Thompson says, “As superintendent, you have to figure out a way, I hate to say it, but to make the Legislature feel guilty for not doing it. We can get parents to help, get business people on board.
We’ve had several school districts that have been able to get local constituencies to step up to the plate, to build new buildings, that in the past were reluctant to doing so. They did it by coalition.”
“Aren’t our children worth an additional penny?” Thompson asks, parroting a successful tax-hike campaign in Marlboro County.
By denying sitting Superintendent Mick Zais’ choice for successor, Meka Childs, a shot at the runoff, perhaps voters have signaled their desire for a shift in approach at the state Department of Education. Maybe South Carolina’s education stakeholders are in for some fence-mending after all.
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