Retiring state superintendent Spearman shares her outlook on the future of education
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - A week from Wednesday, South Carolina public schools will be under new leadership in Columbia.
Republican Ellen Weaver is set to become the next state superintendent, heading South Carolina’s largest state agency, with current superintendent Molly Spearman retiring after not seeking re-election for a third term last year.
Spearman, who sat down for an interview shortly before Christmas, said the transition between her administration and Weaver’s has been going well.
At a meeting Tuesday, Weaver told a group including teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers that she owed Spearman “a debt of gratitude” for her help during this period.
“She’s already been meeting with staff. We prepared books, books, and books of information, but then meeting one-on-one. She’s been here in the building, and we’ve done everything we can to help her be ready to go,” Spearman said.
On the campaign trail, Weaver touted the relationships with lawmakers she had already established through her work with Palmetto Promise Institute, a conservative think tank, and as the former chair of the state’s Education Oversight Committee. She said those connections were necessary for a job that requires working with the General Assembly.
Spearman brought those relationships to her two terms as superintendent, too, having served as a state representative for Saluda County earlier in her career.
But, unlike Weaver, Spearman also worked as a teacher at the start of her career.
In recent years, a divide has been growing between many of those in the classroom and some of those setting policy for the classroom from the State House.
Legislation to restrict what can be taught in public schools has been met with major pushback from educators — with Spearman herself cautioning a state House of Representatives panel against passing those restrictions — and a group of Republican lawmakers is currently suing multiple districts over allegations of teaching “critical race theory” and inappropriate lessons, though it has not provided definitive evidence.
“Each person brings their own talents and skills to this job,” Spearman said. “I think whoever sits in this role — and I have said this to Ms. Weaver — you know, once you get here, you have to realize that students are your number one priority, teachers next, and that you represent every child in this state, every family, and you have to make that environment a safe place where they all feel comfortable. And every word you say is watched, so you have to be very careful, and you have to stay away from the rhetoric.”
Weaver will enter office with other major challenges on her plate as well: notably, the state’s worsening teacher shortage and pandemic learning-loss recovery.
“It’s kind of a catch-22 because the real answer to recovery, academic recovery, is for those students to be with a really strong teacher, side by side, and working together, and it’s harder and harder to find them,” Spearman said.
At the start of this school year, there were more teaching vacancies across South Carolina than ever before, with more than 1,400 unfilled jobs reported.
Spearman noted efforts the state has made during her terms to ameliorate the shortage, including incentives, paying off student loans, and increasing teachers’ statewide minimum salary to $40,000 this year.
When Spearman first took office as superintendent, teachers starting their careers could be paid less than $30,000, though she still believes minimum pay should be bumped up to the $45,000-$50,000 range.
“It’s going to take using industry folks, business folks, to maybe come in and teach a class or two, really monitoring great virtual learning but having those support people,” Spearman said. “But it is a crisis, and I think this is the most challenging situation that we have as a country because it’s not just here in South Carolina. We want doctors. We need cybersecurity people. We need military folks. We need governmental folks. We need nurses. But it all starts with a classroom teacher, and I think we forget that sometimes.”
The outlook is more optimistic for helping students with pandemic-related learning loss.
Recent national test scores indicate that while South Carolina students fell behind in that time, as those all across the country did, they did not fall as far behind as students in most other states.
“We have to think out of the box and provide services beyond the regular schools hours, early childhood education, all the things that we know work, we just have to do it and supply it in abundance to the children who really need it,” Spearman said, noting many districts have already started such programs.
She hopes to see some of her other work continued after she leaves office, including efforts to keep high-school students on track to graduate by engaging them through career programs and putting more state dollars toward improving rural school buildings.
This year, the state legislature appears poised to again try to establish a voucher program, which would give certain families public dollars to send their children to private schools.
That push fell short in the final hours of the 2022 legislative session, stymied by a disagreement among Republican lawmakers over whether students receiving this money should be required to sit for statewide testing as an accountability measure for the program’s success.
“We owe it to every child to give them a chance to succeed, and if a child is struggling and not begin able to succeed in a traditional school, yes, let’s open up the options to them,” Spearman said. “But with the options and the public money comes responsibilities, and that responsibility is a report back to the people of how well did they do. So I personally believe there needs to be a uniform testing.”
Superintendent-elect Weaver will be sworn in Jan. 11, during the governor’s inaugural ceremony at the State House.
Shortly after that, Spearman plans to get some rest and relaxation with her husband on a trip to Hawaii before starting work with the John Maxwell Leadership Foundation, where she will focus on developing leadership among young people.
After eight years in office, she leaves parting words of advice for all South Carolinians.
“People need to relax a little bit and have a little more faith in our fellow humans,” Spearman said. “We have got great kids out there. We’ve got some fantastic teachers and administrators, who have given their lives to these children, and we need to support them in every way we can and make their lives easier by giving them more support.”
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