As much as we’ve made the case for not consolidating too much power in the state’s chief executive, South Carolina voters should have voted to amend the state constitution to change the superintendent of education from an elected to an appointed position.
In a state that consistently lists improving education at or near the top of the priority list and looks to the governor and legislature for leadership in making it happen, having an elected official running the S.C. Department of Education is a dated concept.
South Carolina voters, Republican and Democrat, on Nov. 6 did not agree. They voted by a 58-42 percent margin against the change advocated by the state’s education leaders and business officials, who were joining hands to support the process of gubernatorial appointment and Senate confirmation of the superintendent. The position in 2023 would have become part of the governor’s cabinet.
Republican State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and former Democratic Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum made the case for the change.
“For over 40 years, good government reformers have fought to bring greater accountability to education by allowing the governor to appoint the superintendent,” said Tenenbaum, who oversaw the S.C. Department of Education under both Republican and Democratic gubernatorial administrations before being appointed to federal office by President Barack Obama. “The question that needs to be addressed is who is ultimately responsible for education. Is it the superintendent? The governor? The General Assembly? The State Board of Education? If everyone is responsible, then no one is held responsible. It just becomes an endless circle of finger pointing.”
Spearman, who was unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot for a four-year term in the position, said, “I worked closely with both Gov. Haley and Gov. McMaster to urge the legislature to put this decision to the people. If we want to continue to move our schools in the right direction, the governor and superintendent must have a common vision for education. The current structure of divided leadership can result in split priorities, a lack of concentrated coordination and fragmented accountability. We must come together with a shared vision for better schools and a brighter future that makes education a top priority for the state’s highest office holder.”
The appointment process would have put in place qualifications for the superintendent’s position that currently do not exist. The qualifications included a minimum of a master's degree in education or business and substantial experience in education or operational and financial management. Currently the requirement is only to be a registered voter within the state.
Supporters of the appointment pointed to a certified Democratic nominee who was recently discovered to be a convicted felon and claimed to hold at least one degree that could not be substantiated. In recent years, candidates seeking to be chief of South Carolina public schools did not hold a high school diploma.
Lou Kennedy, CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals and S.C. Chamber of Commerce chairman, said, “It is frightening to think that our children’s future, and the future of our state, could fall into the hands of someone wholly unqualified. Our students deserve better. We must set basic standards for this important office.”
Further, Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the chamber, pointed out that the political nature of the job interview process discourages excellent candidates who may not make the best politicians.
“South Carolina is missing out on the most qualified candidates. Few people are prepared to put their livelihoods on hold for a year to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and undergo the rigors of the campaign trail,” Pitts said. “The state superintendent is the CEO of an organization with more than a thousand employees. Imagine if Fortune 500 companies with budgets as large as the South Carolina Department of Education selected their CEOs by popular vote. I can tell you the best people wouldn’t get the job.”
Perhaps South Carolina voters’ decision was based in a desire to retain electoral power and not cede more control to the governor, but we’re thinking it was more a lack of key information. Perhaps in the future, lawmakers will again decide to put the change before voters.
Until then, Spearman is a capable superintendent who should work hand in hand with the governor and General Assembly on education policy.