Appointed or elected? Education superintendent office could change

By James Salter - For The Sentinel-Progress

COLUMBIA — Introduced legislation in the S.C. General Assembly seeks to amend the state constitution to make the office of Superintendent of Education appointed by the governor, and set specific qualifications for the post.

The constitutional amendment was introduced in the House as H. 3146 by Rep. Greg Delleney (R-Chester), and in the Senate as S. 0137 by Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Charleston). If passed by both chambers, the amendment would be sent to voters for approval in the 2018 statewide general election.

If ratified, the amendment would take effect in January 2023, or upon a vacancy in the office, whichever comes first. This means that next year’s general election ballots would allow voters to pick the superintendent, as well as decide whether 2018 will be the last time they do so.

The proposed resolution seeks to amend Article VI, Section 7 of the S.C. Constitution to provide that the governor must appoint the state Superintendent of Education, and that appointees be confirmed by the state Senate. Under the existing verbiage, voters elect the education chief every four years, alongside the governor and other constitutional officers.

The constitution requires simply that any candidate for state superintendent be a registered voter in this state, age 18 or older, with no prior felony convictions. That is why another set of bills, H. 3036 and S. 27, would specify qualifications the superintendent’s office itself.

The Senate version would require future office-holders to possess at least a master’s degree, and “substantive and broad-based experience” either: as a teacher, principal, administrator, or district superintendent or school board member, or in the “finance, economics, accounting, law, or business” fields.

If approved by the House, the Senate bill would impose eligibility requirements on candidates for Superintendent of Education in the 2018 election. S. 27 was ordered to the House of Representatives after being passed unanimously by the Senate last Thursday.

The House version, H. 3036, differs from the Senate version in that it does not require a minimum master’s degree, and would take effect upon the ratification of the constitutional amendment, rather than upon the governor’s signature. This means that under this version, candidates for the office would not be bound by higher requirements until after the next election.

Sitting Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman supports reform for South Carolina’s education chief post.

Ryan Brown, Chief Communications Officer for the S.C. Department of Education, said that under the amendment, “the Superintendent would be directly accountable to the Governor”, allowing education to take “the forefront of the Governor’s agenda.”

Brown says that “(t)here would also be a common vision among the Governor and Superintendent that would keep education from being a political gambit between two offices that have not always agreed what is best for SC students.” However, “(t)he voters of South Carolina must decide if this is the system of education governance that they prefer.”

S.C. Sen. Ronnie Cromer (R-Newberry) said that the legislation is necessary because, as long as the Superintendent’s office remains elected, “it may wind up being who can raise the most money.”

Cromer added that the biggest obstacle the proposal must overcome in order to become law is a matter of deciding qualifications, but he is confident the measures will pass.

“I think Democrats and Republicans alike are pretty much in line with this, provided we have requirements and qualifications for the office, which we did in the Senate,” Cromer said.

While the Senate has yet to take up the amendment resolution, both the amendment and the qualifications bill have already encountered resistance in the House of Representatives. State Rep. Joseph Jefferson (D-Berkeley) was part of a bi-partisan group of legislators who disagree with the idea of changing how the superintendent is selected.

“We have fought to allow each citizen to make their own decisions as to political office holders, and to deny them that opportunity, and to put everything under one office is a disgrace,” Jefferson said. “We need to leave it as it is and allow the citizens due access, allow them to share their personal views on this, and allow them to vote on the person whom they think is the best choice for these offices.”

Jefferson served on the Berkeley County School Board from 1983-1994, and was chairman for most of his tenure.

State Rep. Rick Martin (R-Newberry), who has co-sponsored both H. 3146 and H. 3036, said that despite the fact the superintendent is elected statewide and heads one of the largest state agencies, “few members of the public can even name the person. You cannot be held accountable by the public if they don’t know who you are.”

Martin added that, under the amendment, the authority of the governor over his or her cabinet would not differ much from that of the president over his own, and that “the Governor and Superintendent of Education need to be from the same party in order to work effectively. The few times they were split, the education system suffered because of a lack of cooperation.”

The last time the governor and Superintendent of Education were elected from different parties was 2006: Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and Superintendent Jim Rex (D).

By James Salter

For The Sentinel-Progress

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