COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster has hired the longtime director of South Carolina's education oversight agency to help advance ideas that will transform the state's lagging public schools, signaling he intends to seize the bully pulpit on education reform.
Education Oversight Committee Director Melanie Barton will start her new job as McMaster's senior education adviser on Sept. 3, the governor's office said Wednesday.
The new position involves bridging efforts between the governor's office and legislators, who for years have been unable to reach consensus on how to improve education, even after a 2014 state Supreme Court ruling ordered them to fix the system that fails to provide poor, rural children even minimal education opportunities.
"It gives more weight to the whole education debate. It will no longer be a legislative debate. It’s the executive branch, the Legislature all working together. I see it as a way to bridge the two bodies and the governor together for a single focus," Barton told The Post and Courier. "That’s going to be my mission — how do we get everybody focused together? I’m totally committed to trying to help (McMaster) get the changes needed."
The year started with McMaster and legislative leaders in both chambers pledging to make an education revamp their top priority for 2019, following The Post and Courier's five-part Minimally Adequate series in November that laid out how the state fails to graduate students who are prepared for either college or the work world. But a massive bill the House passed overwhelmingly in March, despite teacher protests, met resistance in the Senate. A pared-down version, with large chunks removed, is up for debate on the Senate floor when the Legislature resumes in January.
As director of the independent agency over student testing and school report cards since 2011, Barton reported to a board that included legislators of both parties, business people and educators. It's a job that required supplying accurate data on student performance and pushing for improvement while staying politically neutral. Now she'll have a single boss, giving her authority to make and advocate for ideas rather than make recommendations for various factions to consider.
Her reputation in the General Assembly is why McMaster wanted her for the job, said his spokesman Brian Symmes.
"She was the pie in the sky, the holy grail and he was able to hire her," he said, adding the governor expects Barton to remain "brutally honest." "Nobody's going to want to change that whatsoever."
Barton, who's been with the oversight agency since 2000 and was previously the Senate Education Committee's chief research analyst, will make $120,000 in her new role, making her the fourth-highest-paid employee in McMaster's office, earning $14,000 more than the governor himself. Her current salary is $100,000.
Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, who's also a member of the oversight agency's board, called her hiring a "terrific move on the governor's part."
"He needed somebody to quarterback these issues that are complicated and nuanced and varied," said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. "We need that central point of contact with someone who really understands education in South Carolina."
He added, however, that he's "heartbroken she's leaving the EOC."
House Speaker Jay Lucas said the oversight agency has "benefited from her vision and steadfast leadership," and he looks forward to continuing to work with her in her new role.
Barton said she sees her new job as her best chance to affect changes in South Carolina's public schools.
"It’s a passion I have. It’s a passion for improving kids’ outcomes and educational opportunities," she said, tearing up. "It's the kids. I get emotional when I think about it. Whatever I can do to help the governor and the state of South Carolina move forward, I'm going to do it."