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

S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman 

COLUMBIA — An initiative Republicans have been pushing for 15 years failed demonstrably Tuesday, as voters said they want to keep electing the head of South Carolina's public schools.  

The current schools chief, Republican Molly Spearman, cake-walked into a second term, with only nominal opposition on the ballot.

Voters rejected making the superintendent a position appointed by the governor, beginning in 2023. It's an idea GOP governors have fought for since Mark Sanford took office in 2003.

After repeatedly blocking efforts, state senators in May stunningly approved asking voters whether to change the constitution, giving Gov. Henry McMaster a win that eluded his predecessors — at least, in letting voters decide.

Their answer was a resounding "no." With a large majority of precincts reporting, the referendum was losing 61 percent to 39 percent at press time.   

Despite the yearslong effort in the Statehouse, advocates didn't organize to campaign for passage until the state Chamber of Commerce got involved last week.

Many opponents were critical that legislators didn't require future potential appointees to have educator experience. 

Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said for the teachers she represents, their vote came down to being able to continue electing the state's top educator.  

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Spearman won handily. Her only listed opponent this year, Democrat Israel Romero, dropped out of the race three weeks ago following reports of his 2008 felony conviction for unauthorized practice of law. But it was too late to remove his name from voters' options. Charleston middle-school teacher Michele Phillips launched an unsuccessful write-in campaign.

Spearman, elected in 2014 after a decade as president of the state Association of School Administrators, is attempting to turn around rural, failing districts through more direct state control than any other superintendent since lawmakers first approved that authority through the state's 1998 Education Accountability Act.

Since last summer, she's declared emergencies and ousted local leaders in Allendale County, Williamsburg County and tiny Florence 4. The only previous state takeover, also of Allendale schools, didn't produce any significant gains in student achievement. Spearman will try to prove in her second term it can be done.

Spearman had no primary opposition. Even before Romero withdrew, he wasn't expected to win, as he'd campaigned little. 

Spearman still lives in Saluda, where she was a music teacher and assistant principal. She represented the rural county for four terms in the state House before becoming a deputy superintendent at the state agency under Democrat Inez Tenenbaum.    

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.