Essential state education reform

Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman greets the crowd attending the inauguration of Gov. Nikki Haley Wednesday January 14,2015 at the Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas, having already created ad hoc legislative committees on ethics and roads, on Tuesday announced that he was forming a task force to study education reform. There will be plenty to discuss, particularly with the state Supreme Court having directed the Legislature to come up with a plan to improve poor rural schools.

But one fundamental reform ought to be decided by the voters: having the state superintendent of education appointed by the governor. It would recognize that education is a pre-eminent state responsibility over which the governor should have executive authority.

The current education superintendent, Molly Spearman, supports the idea. So did her predecessor, Mick Zais.

In a recent legislative workshop, House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said the change would ensure that “the superintendent of education will be on the same page as the governor.”

Rep. Bannister added, “Everybody needs to be paddling in the same direction.”

Making the superintendent part of the governor’s Cabinet would establish education as a higher priority and empower the state’s chief executive practically to make it so. Indeed, it would immediately put public schools at the forefront of any governor’s agenda. The struggles of public education in South Carolina — particularly those cited in the lawsuit on behalf of poor counties — offer ample evidence that public schools and their students deserve no less.

Given the chance, South Carolina voters have overwhelmingly endorsed rational proposals for government restructuring — such as having the party candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run on a ticket. More recently, voters endorsed making the state’s popularly elected adjutant general a gubernatorial appointee, effective 2019.

The Legislature should take the next step for restructuring and put a referendum question on the ballot for the 2016 general election to make the superintendent of education appointive effective 2019.

About half of the state’s budget goes to education, but the governor has no direct budgetary responsibility over how that money should be spent, or whether it is adequate to the task.

Putting the agency under the ultimate authority of the governor would provide for more coherent policymaking and allocation of resources.

It would give the governor the responsibility and the authority needed to improve public education in South Carolina.

And it would heighten the public debate on education, particularly during the election. At present, the superintendent of education is of secondary interest in the run-up to the election of state constitutional officers.

Putting public education under the governor’s authority would allow the voters to decide whether they want an “education governor” who would be committed primarily to address an essential state responsibility.

It would put future governors on the spot to make a real, lasting difference to public education.