Testing, Standards, Funding Chief Topics for SC Superintendent Race

The general election campaign for the position of Superintendent of Education in South Carolina was in full swing with an hour-long debate in Myrtle Beach last weekend.

Among the various issues discussed at the event were education funding, education standards, and standardized testing. While all three candidates are in agreement that improvements are needed within the state, each has their own ideas about what should be done.

"One of my colleagues up here has been the director of School Administrators Association for nine years and I'm not seeing school improvement in those nine years," American Party candidate Ed Murray told about 300 people attending a forum held by the South Carolina School Boards Association.

"You can have the state superintendent of education say one thing but the party behind that person has to be consistent with what the state superintendent says," he added, in a comment directed at Republicans, some of whom favor taxpayer vouchers for private school students.

Republican Molly Spearman, former director of the school administrators group, replied with her belief that the way to improve education within the state is to work together.

"The job and our efforts are too important for us to squabble and not get along," she said. "I have worked hard over my career never to burn bridges."

The candidates discussed a variety of issues, including federal involvement in education. While Democrat candidate Tom Thompson took the position that the government should be involved because "certainly the federal government has an interest in public education," the other candidates believe the government is overstepping its boundaries and the public education system should be under local control.

Recently, Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill to replace the national Common Core standards prior to the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. South Carolina is the second state to repeal the standards.

Lawmakers within the state allowed for an additional $180 million in spending on public education for K-12. While each of the candidates agrees on the additional spending, there was some debate over changing the wording in the state constitution to make sure each child has a "high quality education, not a minimally adequate education," said Thompson.

At the same time, the number of children being homeschooled within the state is on the rise. Currently, there are about 16,000 students getting their education at home. Homeschooled children must follow the same statewide curriculum but are free to make their own daily schedules, allowing them the flexibility to attend extra-curricular activities during the day.

While Spearman and Murray were in agreement that the laws governing the removal of incompetent teachers did not need to be changed, Thompson made the point that the process is sometimes too long, leaving classrooms left in the hands of unqualified teachers.

The state is currently considering offering teachers higher salaries and boosting student loan programs in an effort to attract better, more qualified teachers.

"We are alarmed that we're not producing enough teachers each year to fill vacancies in the classroom," said Jane Turner, director of the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, located at Winthrop University.

Currently about 2,000 new teachers are graduating each year, a number which only fills about half of the 4,000 annual openings. The remaining slots are filled by substitutes and teachers from other states or countries.

The state pays its teachers an average of $40,000 per year. At the beginning of the year, Senator Darrell Jackson introduced a bill that would have raised that salary to meet the national average of $56,643 within five years. The bill did not receive a single vote.

The candidates did agree that the consolidation of school districts could save money and resources across the state. However, they say the decision should be made at a local level.

Just 400 people were in attendance for the debate. The election is scheduled for November 4.

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