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Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as S.C. School Chief's Race Mixes Policy, Politics

S.C. School Chief's Race Mixes Policy, Politics

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Monica Duvall hasn't taken much time to consider the election of South Carolina's next state superintendent of education--she's been too busy keeping track of her 7-year-old son's day-to-day schooling.

"Governor [David] Beasley is OK--he's done what he's supposed to. But the only time we see the rest of the politicians is when it is time to elect them," Ms. Duvall said one recent morning after escorting her 2nd grade son, Jerromye, into Saluda River Elementary School here. West Columbia is a middle-class suburb of the state capital, Columbia, where Gov. Beasley and other state leaders preside.

Although Ms. Duvall ranks education as her "No. 1 issue," she doesn't plan to spend time worrying over the race for the state's highest education office. Nor do many of the other parents dropping off their children at Saluda River Elementary.

This year's competition between Republican David Eckstrom and Democrat Inez Tenenbaum is considered contentious and extremely important by school administrators, teachers, and political insiders. But with the Nov. 3 election drawing nearer, it is barely registering with many voters.

"I think there is a feeling that South Carolina has become a Republican state, so whoever the Republican [candidate] is, is going to win," said Lorin Anderson, a professor of education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

The state is one of nine with state schools chiefs races this fall, and one of only 14 with elected state superintendents. In other states, the superintendent or commissioner of education is chosen by the governor or the state school board.

Critical Reform Role

"The state superintendent has the bully pulpit," Barbara Stock Nielsen, the outgoing South Carolina chief, said during an interview in her Columbia office.

But "you don't really have a lot of power to effect change," Ms. Nielsen added. "People who run for this office say, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that,' but all you can do is suggest."

In South Carolina, the superintendent's responsibilities include allocating $100 million of discretionary funding within the state's $2.4 billion education budget for fiscal 1999, organizing the state education department's 915-member staff, implementing policy agreed upon by the 17-member state board of education, and acting as the secretary and administrative officer to that board. South Carolina's top school official also regularly talks with local school leaders and serves as a liaison between them and the state board.

In addition, the next schools chief will help pound out the details of the Accountability Act of 1998, considered the most sweeping education law in South Carolina in years. The legislation created a framework for new academic standards, student assessments, teacher training programs, and an annual grading system for schools.

"The new state superintendent will play a critical role in helping shape that act," said Evelyn M. Berry, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association. "Ultimately that will affect local school boards and the students in South Carolina."

Some observers complain that the election has become a political tug of war between Republicans hoping to sweep state races and Democrats fighting to prove their party is still viable here. Many see the candidates merely as politicians interested in using the position as a springboard to other offices rather than a place to help public education.

Such problems are inherent in the state's democratic process, said Bill Moore, a government professor at the College of Charleston who specializes in Southern and state politics.

"Since this is an elected position, there is a type of independent power base for this partisan office you don't see in other places," Mr. Moore said.

Ms. Nielsen, a Republican, contends politics has prevented the candidates from discussing problems and solutions in depth. "I think politically they're being told not to get into specifics. If you are specific, you'll make enemies and turn voters off," she said.

In recent weeks, both Ms. Tenenbaum and Mr. Eckstrom have prepared television ads, posted roadside signs, and crisscrossed the state. Mr. Eckstrom went so far as to purchase a school bus for his travels, and both candidates have raised substantial campaign funding.

According to the South Carolina Ethics Commission, Ms. Tenenbaum has raised approximately $310,000 this year for her campaign, while Mr. Eckstrom has accumulated about $200,000.

A poll conducted in late August showed the two in a statistical dead heat, said Del Ali, the senior vice president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research, a Maryland firm that is monitoring South Carolina races. But 37 percent of the 806 people questioned were undecided. Ms. Tenenbaum, a lawyer and former teacher, has picked up the endorsement of the South Carolina Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

Ms. Tenenbaum quit her law practice in 1992 to start a nonprofit organization to reform the state juvenile-justice system and is now a member of the governor's Juvenile Justice Task Force. Ms. Tenenbaum has campaigned for Democrats since high school and made a failed run for lieutenant governor in the 1994 primary.

Mr. Eckstrom, also a lawyer and the father of two young sons in the public schools, is the chairman of Lexington-Richland School District 5, a wealthy district outside Columbia with more than 14,000 students. Mr. Eckstrom lost a bid for attorney general in the 1994 primary and is the brother of the state treasurer.

Neither Ms. Tenenbaum nor Mr. Eckstrom apologizes for running a tough race. "I don't think this campaign is out of control," Mr. Eckstrom said.

On a recent day on the campaign trail in the northwest portion of the state, both candidates advocated safer schools, mastery of basic skills, and reforming teacher training. The most divisive issue--school vouchers--was addressed only when pushed by voters. Ms. Tenenbaum is against vouchers, while Mr. Eckstrom said he is "keeping an open mind."

The topics they discussed are "politically correct issues," Mr. Anderson of the University of South Carolina said. "Everyone wants to lower class sizes. Everyone is on the safer-schools bandwagon. I guess I wouldn't get elected if I stood up and said we have a major problem with rural education."

Tell all that to Debbie Jones, a mother of two boys in the South Carolina public schools, and she sighs heavily.

"I just don't keep up with it," Ms. Jones said as she walked to her car outside Saluda River Elementary. "I've got one graduating this year, and I am just hoping to push him on through college."

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Pages 14,17

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