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Editorial: Kathy Maness the best choice to follow Molly Spearman as SC education chief

Molly Spearman is probably the best superintendent of education South Carolina has ever had, and as we prepare to elect her successor, it’s useful to consider why.

The superintendent’s job is to run the S.C. Department of Education, a huge state agency that handles nearly half the state budget, and to serve as chief advocate for public education in our state. So it demands significant administrative experience and knowledge about education, along with the ability to present a smart vision for improving the education we provide for children and to work with the Legislature, the governor, the public, local school officials and teachers to make that vision a reality.

Ms. Spearman had the experience to do the job, having served as a public school teacher, a state legislator, a top deputy at the Education Department and director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators. She also had a collaborative, pragmatic approach rather than the ideological mindset that had crippled the agency under her predecessor.

That combination allowed her to turn down the temperature of education debates that had become far too political, as the Education Department and much of the political class focused on scapegoating teachers. She returned the agency to its role of serving as a resource to help school districts improve, while also holding them accountable. And she was able to convince tiny school districts to consolidate, turn around failing districts and overhaul the state’s curriculum to focus it more sharply on preparing students for work or college.

There’s no Molly Spearman on the ballot this year, but if we look to the Molly Spearman template, one candidate stands out: Kathy Maness.

Like Ms. Spearman, Ms. Maness is a former teacher who went on to run a large education advocacy group, from which she has participated in every important education policy debate in our state in the past two decades. Ms. Maness has the distinction among the Republican candidates of having served in elective office (Lexington Town Council since 2004), which gives her an understanding most of us lack about answering to voters and building consensus in order to get anything accomplished.

Her work at the Palmetto State Teachers Association is noteworthy because the state’s largest teacher organization was founded specifically as an alternative to the S.C. Education Association, which is affiliated with the overly politicized National Education Association. So Ms. Maness’ job has been to represent teachers while working in a bipartisan way to present a pragmatic vision for education to the Legislature.

The Republican candidates all recognize the urgency of the state’s teacher shortage and want to get more education dollars into the classroom and give parents more choices, including with one exception paying them to send their kids to private schools. But Ms. Maness also wants to ensure taxpayer accountability for those funds, by requiring the same testing for kids attending private schools with vouchers as kids in public schools. And she has a track record of working across the political spectrum to build coalitions; that might not seem important in a Legislature dominated by Republicans, but it is in education, where success requires buy-in not just at the Statehouse but also in less-monolithic school boards and classrooms.

Indeed, our biggest concerns about the presumed frontrunner, Ellen Weaver, are that she is so closely aligned with former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who cultivated a reputation as a no-compromise ideologue, and is seen as the voucher candidate — an impression she underscores when she lists “lack of school choice options” first in her list of the “many specific dysfunctions of our education system.” Again, those characteristics might not hurt her at the Statehouse, but they make her immediately suspect to many of the teachers and would-be teachers she needs to help our state attract and retain, as well as school administrators and school board members who carry out the work the superintendent is supposed to inspire and oversee.

The other concern about Ms. Weaver is that she (like Travis Bedson) doesn’t have a master’s degree, as required by state law. When she learned of the requirement in mid-April, she said she had just started working on one at Western Governors’ University. She has since switched to her alma mater Bob Jones University, whose website says its program takes 1 to 1 ½ years; that raises questions about whether she will meet the legal deadline and, if she does, whether it’s a legitimate degree.

We’re not convinced that a master’s is necessary to do the job, but the law is the law, and the fact that candidates would file for office apparently without knowing this is deeply disturbing.

We need a superintendent of education who respects the law and is attentive enough to details to know the parts that so directly affect her. We also need one who understands, like Ms. Spearman, that education should not be about political ideology. Kathy Maness’ pragmatic and collaborative approach to governing make her the best successor to Ms. Spearman. We urge voters to vote in the Republican primary and cast their ballots for her.

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