OCT. 17, 2014 -- Conventional wisdom, combined with recent political history and purposefully faulty math, has it that the race for state Superintendent of Education provides Democratic candidates with the best chance of winning a statewide office this year.
Not only have two of the three past superintendents in this Republican-controlled state have been Democrats, but there appears to be a 74 percent chance that a Democrat will be elected superintendent in November.
Is that a scientifically-produced polling statistic? No, it’s pure bunk, but here’s the reasoning:
Republican candidate Molly Spearman is a former member of the S.C. House from Saluda County. First elected in 1992 as a Democrat, she switched parties by the mid-1990s and then was elected as a Republican. She then became a deputy state superintendent of education in 1998 in the administration of Democratic Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum. In the years since, some pundits have labeled Spearman as a RINO – or a Republican In Name Only.
So assuming that Spearman is at least 52 percent Republican and 48 percent Democratic, and her opponent Tom Thompson is fully a Democrat, then, solipsistically, there is a 74 percent chance of the next superintendent of being a Democrat. [The math: (100+48)/2.]
Repairing Zais’ rift
Having Democratic leanings is not the only trait the two candidates share. They both survived odd primary runoffs that were spiced with controversies. Spearman had a GOP runoff rival who ducked questions while Thompson’s runoff opponent championed taxing marijuana sales to fund public K-12 education.
But perhaps the trait they most clearly share is that neither wants to be perceived as another Mick Zais, the strident top-down former Army general who is stepping down as superintendent at the end of his current term.
Both candidates have promised to listen to more sources and experts than did Zais.
“Zais had a mind that he knew what was needed to be done, and he did not need to listen to anybody else,” said Thompson, currently a graduate-level administrator for a national online college. “As a result, he did not value input from those (professionals) within the public education field.”
Thompson said the first “quick fix” would be to bring back to the table the major stakeholders in the state’s public education system – parents, teachers and administrators. “The state Department of Education cannot do it alone – Zais felt like he could.”
Spearman likened the role of the superintendent, not as a lead-from-the-front or damn-the-torpedoes type, but as an “ambassador” who brings together leaders from different areas of the state.
She said she would have a much more “positive” view to attract cooperation from a variety of educational experts and stakeholders.
Different ways to tackle disparities
But neither Spearman, grieving from the loss of a sibling last week, or Thompson are running against Zais. So, here now are some differences. Both candidates want desperately to tackle the educational disparities in the state, but in decidedly different ways.
Thompson champions expanded early childhood education, reaching back further than even the beleaguered efforts to fund a K-5 program. He thinks by the state school system working with kids younger than 5 years old, the differences in educational opportunities and attainment can be mitigated.
Spearman, by contrast, would chart a two-pronged path forward, whereby the style of teaching would change to more “facilitate” learning and problem-solving, while at the same time creating a statewide educational funding system to address disparities between richer and poorer communities.
Like Zais, Spearman is enamored with distance learning, through which teachers in one part of the state or beyond lead lessons in multiple schools via tele-conferencing.
But unlike Zais, who wanted to whittle away at the traditional manner in which the education “product” was delivered, Spearman wants to use distance learning to augment school districts.
Poorer, rural school districts like those in Allendale County, which the state took over when Spearman worked at the state Department of Education, would have a better chance of offering classes that are tough to recruit and fill teachers for, such as AP Biology.
By contrast, Thompson would create economic advantages on the state level to attract more highly-qualified teachers to less urban districts.
All together now
Thompson argued that the reason why Democrats have done well in superintendent races is that the party’s message of inclusiveness to move every school forward resonates with more voters, regardless of political stripe.
“Parents, and voters, want to know that those who are running the public education system will work for the welfare of every child – it’s an easier philosophy to accept,” he said.
Spearman opposes vouchers and most instances of public money going to private schools, separating her from many in her own party. She said there are exceptions – such as allowing the families of special-needs children to use tax credits for better-suited private facilities. But those exceptions have to be coupled with solid levels of accountability and access to test scores, she said.
Also potentially separating her from some members of her party and some former colleagues in the legislature, Spearman said she would fight for statewide funding of public K-12 education.
To date, there’s been no public polling in the race. Most observers, however, expect Spearman to prevail because of her endorsements and lengthy record of public service.
Bill Davis is senior editor of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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