With South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman announcing she will not run for election in 2022, here’s a look at what she has done since being elected in 2014.
The Superintendent of Education is an elected position that oversees the S.C. Department of Education, which regulates teacher licensing, provides guidance to school districts on how to follow state laws and collects data on enrollment, test scores and demographics.
The education department’s primary focus is on K-12 education, not higher ed.
While Spearman has run as a Republican, she is not appointed, and has thus been willing to defy top S.C. Republicans. She called for K-12 schools to require masks in classrooms as COVID-19 cases were rising and testified that the state shouldn’t ban transgender girls from participating in high school and middle school women’s sports.
Before being elected as education superintendent, Spearman worked as a music teacher, an assistant principal and, starting in 1998, the deputy superintendent of education.
Here are five highlights from her time in office.
In the months after COVID-19 arrived in South Carolina, Spearman organized a task force to figure out how to safely teach students amid a novel and growing pandemic.
The task force produced recommendations, such as how many students could be on a bus at one time or when classes should be moved to online-only. Then the department required each school district in the state to submit a re-opening plan before the start of the 2020-21 school year.
While school districts often varied from the task force recommendations, cases remained relatively low — especially compared to this school year — during a time when there was no vaccine and less was known about COVID-19.
The S.C. Superintendent of Education is an ex officio member of the University of South Carolina board of trustees, which means anyone who holds the office of education superintendent automatically has a spot on the board.
Spearman was one of the key votes in favor of hiring former U.S. Military Academy at West Point Superintendent Robert Caslen to become the president of the University of South Carolina. Before the 11-8 vote was cast for Caslen in 2019, Spearman gave a speech during the public session of the school board meeting saying she had “full confidence” in Caslen to lead.
She acknowledged the search created controversy and said it was on the board to fix the damaged public trust that resulted from the search.
“I’m very regretful there is so much contention around this. It never should have got that far. I think as a board we never should have let it get to that,” Spearman said in the 2019 meeting.
Caslen resigned this spring after a botched graduation speech landed him in hot water with students, faculty and lawmakers. Caslen admitted he plagiarized part of the speech.
One of Spearman’s early priorities was reducing the number of school districts in the Palmetto State. The idea behind consolidating school districts is that, in theory, it reduces administrative overhead and lets more money flow into the classrooms.
Since 2015, when Spearman was sworn in, 15 school districts have been consolidated or are in the process of being consolidated into 6, S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown told The State in an email.
In 2017, a consultant group found that schools could save at least $126 million by upgrading systems and sharing resources among districts.
While Spearman is a Republican, school consolidation has received support from both parties, teacher advocacy groups, think tanks and more.
When Spearman took over, many of the state’s school buses were old, and sometimes dangerous. Between 2015 and 2017, 17 school buses either caught fire or were dangerously overheated, The State reported previously.
Using state funds, settlement money from a lawsuit against Volkswagen and federal funds, the state replaced hundreds of buses. In the news release announcing she wouldn’t seek reelection, Spearman called the state’s bus fleet “one of the most efficient fleets in the nation.”
Shortly after Spearman was elected, South Carolina moved to replace the Common Core criteria that aimed to standardize education assessments throughout the country.
While the standards had to be approved by lawmakers, the S.C. Department of Education also had to approve them, The State reported previously.
The standards that replaced Common Core were considered to be more difficult than Common Core, The State reported previously.