Molly Spearman, South Carolina’s elected superintendent of education, has no illusions about her job being on the state ballot and, in fact, she supports making the position appointive and part of the governor’s cabinet.
Spearman, a former legislator and before that a classroom music teacher and assistant principal, has joined Gov. Nikki Haley in urging legislators to support legislation setting up a statewide referendum. The S.C. Constitution makes the education superintendent elective, so voters’ approval is necessary to change the position to appointive.
In 2014, S.C. voters approved amending the constitution to take the adjutant general off the ballot. South Carolina continues to popularly elect more positions than other states. The commissioner of agriculture, for example, is still elected. Only 13 states elect a superintendent of education. For one example, Illinois made its “superintendent of public instruction” appointive with approval of an updated constitution following a 1970 constitutional convention.
The Haley-Spearman letter came prior to the governor being chosen ambassador to the United Nations by president-elect Donald Trump. This appointment is subject to U.S. Senate approval, which is expected. With that, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster will become governor for the remaining two years of Haley’s term.
The letter to lawmakers points out the current divided leadership structure: “Instead of moving the state forward with a common vision for education priorities, this divided leadership structure can result in incompatible positions, a lack of coordination and fragmented accountability for failures in our Pre K-12 education system.” The superintendent oversees the 82 school districts in the state, and a $2.4 billion budget.
In the past, governors and education superintendents have been of different political parties. Gubernatorial candidates may address “education on the campaign trail, but they have very little power to make any of it happen,” says Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston. Campsen has legislation to place the question before voters. This year the House approved a joint resolution for a referendum, but it was blocked in the Senate.
“It is time,” Spearman says. “Discussions have been going on for more than 50 years. We’ve debated it a long, long time.”
Better cohension between the governor and superintendent is one of the advantages of an appointed superintendent. Spearman and Haley have a good working relationship, but Spearman can see where that might not be the case. Running a statewide campaign is costly and it may be more difficult to find qualified candidates.
Currently, no qualifications are required for superintendent candidates, and qualifications would be added for an appointed superintendent, as well as Senate approval, which may be helpful in passing legislation in 2017. The General Assembly has long held the lion’s share of power, and legislators typically don’t want to give the governor more power.
It is indeed time for this modest piece of reform in governance and we urge area legislators to support placing the question on the ballot.