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Sheheen event focuses on education stance

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen says he would veto any efforts to provide public aid for private-school tuition and Republican cuts to education.

His opponent, Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley, plans on releasing an education proposal this morning, but Sheheen, a Kershaw County state senator, was quick to invoke the hot-button voucher issue she has supported in the past. Providing parents vouchers or tax credits to pay private-school tuition has been the most consistently divisive legislative issue since Gov. Mark Sanford took office in 2003 supporting the idea. Lawmakers have yet to approve any version of the idea.

"For the last eight years, we've spent our time talking about vouchers when we should be talking about how to improve public education," Sheheen said. "Enough is enough, and I'm standing today for public education."

Sheheen's Wednesday news conference at Columbia's Hand Middle School had the feel of an event just weeks, not months, from Election Day. State Republican Party staffers held signs asking Sheheen's positions on a national health care law and illegal immigration, while Sheheen staffers boxed out a Haley camera crew attempting to record the event.

Sheheen said he would end teacher pay cuts and reduce class sizes. But South Carolina could face as much as a $1 billion budget shortfall next year, and Sheheen did not say how schools could pay for programs to achieve those goals. Sheheen said he would not raise taxes to fund education.

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said Democrats have held the superintendent of education post for more than a decade.

"They have no program for reform," Godfrey said in a statement. "Their only idea is to throw more money at the education bureaucracy. As the mother of children in public schools, Nikki Haley knows our children deserve first-class schools, and that means getting our education dollars into the classrooms, not into the state Department of Education."

Haley supported private-school choice during the primary, but also said her first focus as governor would be to make sure schools were spending their money on classroom expenses.

Sheheen also blamed Republicans for an "unhealthy" obsession with standardized tests, which he said prevent teachers from doing their job.

The media event allowed Republicans a chance to press Sheheen on national issues that may be unpopular among South Carolina voters. In addition, Sanford was in the Upstate Wednesday signing a new law that requires women to wait before they can have an abortion, prompting Haley's campaign to ask Sheheen to state whether he was pro-life or pro-choice.

Sheheen declined to answer any question except those dealing with education.