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The S.C. state superintendent of education

Posted: March 14, 2014 9:36 a.m.
Updated: March 17, 2014 5:00 a.m.

In South Carolina, the State Superintendent of Education’s position is an elected office. I suspect having to raise megabucks and participate in South Carolina’s hardball politics prevents a lot of very qualified people from running.

That being said, there seems to be no shortage of candidates signed up for the June primary. The backgrounds of the candidates vary greatly -- current and former teachers, current and former legislators, school board members, former administrators, a Tea Party activist, the wife of a former political operative and a college professor; obviously, it is quite the mixed bag. No one can say that politics in South Carolina is boring.

What qualifies someone for this office? In 39 years in education, I’ve seen about 12 state superintendents in two different states come and go. I’ve seen great ones, and ones who were at best irrelevant. What makes a good one? Let me say up front that being a parent, a qualification many of the candidates are touting for themselves, is certainly valid. I truly believe I became better professionally through my experience as a parent. But there is just so much more involved in this office.

Experience in a real public school

School building experience as a teacher and/or administrator in a real honest-to-goodness public school is essential. I rely on 17 years of such experience every day. A state superintendent of education who doesn’t have this experience will have difficulty understanding the impact of policy decisions on actual schools and classrooms. One lesson that I have learned, often painfully, is that theoretical policy concocted in a meeting held in an isolated setting and the reality of a living and breathing school can be two very different issues.

Experience leading a complex organization

The state superintendent of education leads the South Carolina Department of Education. Based on its online staff directory, the department has about 400 employees who work with a wide variety of functions, many of which are governed by very specific laws and regulations. Leading and managing this large and complex an organization is not for an amateur. (Please don’t tell me that a marginally qualified candidate will “bring in good people.” You have to have a sufficient understanding of what you’re leading to choose the right people and then lead them.) It is essential for the state superintendent of education to have meaningful experience leading a large organization. For those of us in the field, a poorly managed education department is just one more problem.

Experience managing large budget

The department of education oversees more than $3.8 billion in state, federal, and other funds which are subject to a mind-boggling number of legal and regulatory mandates. Managing this kind of money goes well beyond what is required to manage a small business, non-profit or household. Real experience in high-dollar financial oversight is imperative. Certainly, having strong finance people in the organization is important; however, the boss must have a good overall grasp of the finances. Mismanaging federal funds in particular can have catastrophic consequences. (Although a number of our politicians express dramatic public disdain for federal funds, make no mistake, federal funds are a big part of the financial picture of our state.)

Ability to navigate the political process

The state superintendent of education’s actual authority is pretty limited. To accomplish anything, the state superintendent of education must be able to influence others, including the state board, the General Assembly, the Education Oversight Committee, the governor, federal officials and the general public. The ability to articulate a vision, find common ground, manage conflict and develop consensus is critical. An individual with political or ideological axes to grind will not be effective in terms of working with constituent groups.

Vision

The state superintendent of education must have a compelling vision for education in South Carolina -- a vision about where we need to be in the 21st century as well as a vision that brings people together versus driving wedges between groups. It needs to be a vision that encompasses all of our students, their families and their communities. And it must be a vision that respects the professionals who work with our students. A candidate with a single or limited agenda is one who very likely lacks a legitimate vision. Be especially wary of candidates who offer simple solutions (vouchers, value-added evaluation, charter schools, more testing, nullification or whatever) for every problem.

In short, look beneath the slogans, slick packaging, sound bites and just plain fear mongering in considering the candidates -- actual qualifications matter.

One prediction: The candidates who have had the least experience in and contact with schools will have the most ads and pictures on the Internet showing them with kids and teachers.

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. The district phone number is 432-8416 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at on our award-winning website, www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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