Two of the candidates running for South Carolina’s next schools chief agreed on more than they disagreed during a televised debate Monday.
Republican candidate Molly Spearman and her Democratic opponent Tom Thompson met for 30 minutes in the education superintendent’s debate on SCETV. American Party nominee Ed Murray was not invited because he did not meet the debate criteria. All three are vying to replace current superintendent Mick Zais, who did not seek reelection this year.
The candidates agreed that South Carolina’s current education funding formula needs to change. Spearman, the executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, said the state’s current formula dates back to an era when each town had its own textile mill. “That no longer exists, so for the past almost 50 years now we have been patching the formula,” she said. “And it has gotten so complex and so divided, there’s so many strings of funding, that few people understand it.”
Thompson, a former South Carolina State University education dean who is now a consultant, said the problem is the mindset of state leaders who have allowed “minimally adequate” to become synonymous with education funding. “The superintendent may have to bring public pressure to convince the legislature that the needs of the children, the needs of the public education system, should be a priority for the state,” he said.
One area where the two candidates differed was new standards to replace Common Core. The state Department of Education is currently drafting new state standards that would replace the national ones beginning in fall 2015. A task force is working to recommend the new standards early next year. Spearman said implementing those new standards would be her “first priority” upon taking office.
“We’ve got to get this issue settled,” Spearman said. “We have to have high standards approved by South Carolinians so that we can make sure that every graduate is prepared for whatever the next step will be.””
Thompson said South Carolina should have never scrapped Common Core in the first place. Legislators passed a bill this spring (signed by Gov. Nikki Haley and endorsed by current superintendent Mick Zais) which requires the Department of Education to draft its own proposed standards, even though Common Core was already implemented for the 2014-15 school year. The replacement version must be approved by the state Board of Education and the legislature before the 2015-16 school year.
“It’s unfortunate that things turned out the way they did with Common Core,” Thompson said. “Teachers having the rug, so to speak, pulled out from under them created a chaotic situation in our schools.”
Neither candidate supported using taxpayer money towards private schools, although Spearman said she supported a fledgling program created last year that allows students with special needs to get private school scholarships with the help of tax credits.
Spearman, who served as a Democrat in the Statehouse in 1990s, was also asked about her conservative credentials and if she was on the same page as Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. Spearman responded that she worked with Haley to create a revamped education funding formula this past year.
“I don’t know that I’m in lockstep with anybody,” she said. “I’ve never agreed with anybody on everything. But I do believe that our governor now has set the momentum for supporting public education in this state. It has been a bipartisan effort, though.”
Neither candidate attacked or criticized the other’s position on any issue.