Race for education leaders raises SC qualifying questions

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — A Republican think tank CEO who opposes critical race theory and supports giving children public money for private scholarships appears to be a strong frontrunner to be elected the new head of schools in conservative South Carolina this fall.

But Ellen Weaver faces a potentially serious hurdle: she’s missing a master’s degree, a new requirement to become superintendent of education.

Weaver began the graduate degree in April and is committed to completing it before the November election. But it’s unclear what might happen if she doesn’t, whether the issue might end up in court and whether it would open the door for a Democrat to win a statewide office in South Carolina. for the first time in 18 years.

After winning the GOP nomination on Tuesday, Weaver seemed serene.

“Tonight we saw voters understand that the real qualification for this job is leadership and a strong backbone,” Weaver told reporters. “Having said that, I will fully fulfill all legal obligations to hold this position. I will complete my Masters in Educational Leadership in October before the general election.

In South Carolina, Republicans in the Legislative Assembly have sought to block high school transgender athletes from playing with the team about their gender identity and to stop local school districts from requiring masks. These issues have been pushed by conservatives across the country and bring more attention to the top administrators running public schools.

Current Republican Superintendent Molly Spearman – who backed Weaver’s second-round opponent – disagrees with her party members. Weaver’s views align more with most of the state’s leading conservatives.

Weaver faces Democrat Lisa Ellis, a teacher and founder of education advocacy group SC for Ed who has a graduate degree. Green Party candidate Patricia Mickel, a teacher who told The Associated Press she has a master’s degree, is also in the running.

Weaver enrolled in a master’s program in educational leadership at Bob Jones University in Greenville, the conservative Christian school where she earned an undergraduate degree in political science. The school’s website says the program usually takes 12 to 18 months.

But students can set their own pace. The registrar’s office confirmed to AP that Weaver is a current student and plans to take an online course in the fall.

The requirement for an advanced degree dates back to 2018, when 60% of voters rejected a constitutional amendment to have the governor appoint the head of education. Lawmakers also updated the qualifications for the position in accompanying legislation.

For the position of superintendent in 2022, candidates must now meet new qualifications, including a master’s degree and “extensive experience” in public education as a teacher, administrator or member of a school board or a decision-making body.

Although the new qualifications appeared on the South Carolina Election Commission website, they received little attention until The Post and Courier published an article after the close of nominations. Several applicants dropped out while others like Weaver committed to earning higher degrees.

Parties certify that candidates are qualified for the primaries, and Republicans have said the promise of Weaver’s graduation by November is sufficient.

Beyond qualifications, the Ellis campaign said, experience matters. Unlike Weaver, the Democrat spent time in the classroom and in administration, spokeswoman Leesa Danzek told AP.

“Regardless of whether Weaver is able to complete and obtain his required master’s degree, there are of course more practical qualifications that I think many parents and constituents would like to see in the education leader,” Danzek said.

If Weaver gets his master’s degree before the inauguration of statewide officers after November, there will be no legal questions about his eligibility, said attorney Kevin Hall, who served as Republican Party counsel. of State.

No one sued Weaver for his qualifications, but the degree and experience could be disputed. Weaver has no experience in classroom or school administration, and the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee she oversees does not set policy. She worked for former US Senator Jim DeMint before becoming president of the Palmetto Promise Institute think tank he founded.

Regarding concerns about Weaver’s experience, Hall added that the leadership of his think tank “speaks for itself.”

The race for superintendent featured themes seen elsewhere across the country, including debates over COVID-19 class politics and a conservative outcry over critical race theory. This term is a way of thinking about the history of America through the prism of racism. It has become a political rallying cry on the right, but concrete examples of its teaching in classrooms have proven difficult to find.

Patrick Kelly, director of government affairs at the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association, noted that the Republican primary included a lot of discussion around critical race theory.

While Kelly said “indoctrination” might be a problem in some parts of the state,” he added that “ultimately, it’s not within our state standards.”

He also said the governor had declared student mental health a crisis in the state, but noted that this was not debated by the primary candidates. And, he said, voter turnout was “absymly low” — just 17% for the June 14 primaries and 7% for the runoff two weeks later, according to state Election Commission data. .


Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.


James Pollard is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow James Pollard on Twitter.

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