Eight Republicans running for state superintendent of education faced off Tuesday in an ETV debate -- staking out their positions on a range of issues from Common Core education standards and teacher evaluations to whether intelligent design should be taught in the state's science classrooms.
The candidates are competing to lead the state Department of Education, a largely administrative role that has no direct authority over the state's more than 80 school districts. But the position does offer candidates a bully pulpit to spread their messages and advocate for their agendas.
Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association for School Administrators, said her experience working as an educator, a former state Education Department employee under Democrat Inez Tenenbaum and now an advocate for school administrators has given her the ties and the ability to bring stakeholders to the table to solve problems.
Making computer science a required subject, starting in the 4th grade, and pushing for lower college tuition would be a priority for University of South Carolina math professor Don Jordan.
Charleston County school board member Elizabeth Moffly said she would like to lower the number of credits students need to graduate and to offer more diploma options to students.
Anderson County Board of Education member Gary Burgess said the best way to improve education is to let teachers discipline students, regaining control of the classroom.
Special-education teacher Sally Atwater of Charleston, widow of GOP operative Lee Atwater, said her experience working in Washington on special-education issues under President George H.W. Bush and her recent classroom experience make her the best choice for state schools chief.
Lexington attorney Amy Cofield said what sets her apart is she is the only candidate with experience in law, business and education.
Meka Childs of West Columbia, a former deputy superintendent under current Republican Superintendent Mick Zais, said she would push for local control of education decisions, increasing-school choice options and would not require “on-the-job training.''
The biggest rivalry in the debate emerged between anti-Common Core activist Sheri Few of Lugoff and Childs of West Columbia, who picked up an endorsement from Zais after she resigned from her state position.
Few, who turned nearly every question back to her opposition to Common Core, repeatedly targeted Childs, criticizing her for having worked for the state.
At one point, Few erroneously said Childs was the reason the state secretly passed the Next Generation Science Standards — equally reviled by Common Core opponents.
In the only rebuttal permitted during the debate, Childs responded: “Our state has not adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, and saying it over and over again is not going to make that true.''
Childs then criticized Few for her attacks, saying the attacks might “inadvertently send up a nomination that doesn't actually hold true conservative principles'' and would only damage the Republican Party.
Few said repealing Common Core's standards completely would be her top priority if elected.
Other candidates, including Spearman, said not everything about Common Core is bad, but said the standards should be evaluated to ensure that children are not required to “spit out the facts.''
The candidates also were asked whether they support the state's science standards. Those guidelines sparked a debate earlier this year about whether intelligent design, as well as evolution, should be taught.
Spearman provided one of the most direct responses to the question, saying that, as a Christian, she taught her children at home about what their religion says about their creation. But, in the classroom, teachers should give students the facts.
Few also answered the question directly, saying she would support teaching creationism in the classroom.
“There is plenty of science and research behind the theory of intelligent design, and yet it is not allowed in the classroom,'' she said, saying she would push for students to receive a more “objective'' education.