Molly Spearman at Laing Middle School (Feb. 28, 2018 copy) (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman. A referendum in November to make the superintendent of education a governor-appointed position instead of an elected one was defeated, but some are already looking to put it back on the ballot. File/Paul Bowers/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina voters resoundingly defeated a referendum in November to make the state's superintendent of education a governor-appointed position instead of an elected one.

Despite that setback, some lawmakers would like to get the measure back on the ballot again in 2020. But momentum for the proposal, long pushed by reform advocates including former Gov. Nikki Haley, appears to have sustained a critical blow, at least for the time being.

State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, and state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, have prefiled bills for the upcoming session that would give voters a second chance to change the way South Carolina chooses its top education official.

"I don't think there was a real strong effort to try to push it until the last two or three weeks before the election," Young said. "So I think if it came back up there would probably be more attention paid to it. I still think it's important to try to get it passed."

Proponents of the idea argue that many voters don't know who the superintendent is, so putting the position under the governor's authority would let the public hold a more well-known public official accountable for the state's performance on education.

But other previous supporters of the measure, such as state Rep. Garry Smith, said they feel it's not necessary to give the proposal another shot so soon after the recent failure.

"My thoughts are the voters have spoken on the issue and I'm not looking to fight that fight again right now," said Smith, R-Greenville.

The results were not particularly close: 60 percent of voters rejected the proposed state constitutional amendment to 40 percent who supported it. Teacher groups, like the South Carolina Education Association, complained that the change would not have set requirements that the governor's choice have experience in public schools.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, voted in favor of putting the measure on the ballot this year, but he said he would oppose any effort to try the referendum again anytime soon.

"I think there needs to be a lengthy period of time for the governors to prove that the Cabinet system can work at all because it's been such a failure the last decade or so, and then maybe the public would have more confidence in trusting the education secretary to the governor," Sheheen said. "But that's, in my mind, a long way away."

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This year's vote failed despite public support from current Republican state superintendent Molly Spearman, as well as one of her Democratic predecessors, Inez Tenenbaum.

Now, Spearman is turning more focus to other school issues, including increasing teacher salaries and reworking the state's education funding formula.

"It's still something (Spearman) is supportive of, but it's not high on her priority list," said S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown.

That approach is echoed by the pro-business S.C. Chamber of Commerce, which was one of the most prominent groups backing the referendum this year. 

Chamber president Ted Pitts said the business community still believes giving the governor more authority over education policy would be a good move, but they no longer expect that change to come soon and are more focused on other education initiatives.

"I'm not sure there's going to be interest this quickly after it failing to put it back on the ballot from policymakers," Pitts said. "I believe there will become a time when it does ultimately get on the ballot and pass, but you have to have the right forces at play."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.