When Ellen Weaver won the Republican primary for South Carolina’s state superintendent, she didn’t meet one of the key qualifications of the job: having a master’s degree.
A little-known state law passed in 2018 requires the South Carolina superintendent of education to have their master’s in one field or another, and every person who’s held the position in the past 100 years has had such an advanced degree. Since winning the primary in June, Weaver, the CEO of a conservative think tank and the former chairman of the state’s Education Oversight Committee, has stated that she plans to get the degree before the Nov. 8 general election.
“While we know that all the letters behind your name are no substitute for bold leadership, I am hard at work completing my master’s degree in educational leadership and will be finished by October,” Weaver said on her website. She has enrolled in the online educational leadership program at Bob Jones University, a private Christian college in Greenville, S.C., which is where she also received her bachelor’s degree, according to reporting from the The State, a newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
Weaver hadn’t publicly announced that she had her degree in hand as of Oct. 14. Her campaign did not respond to multiple Education Week requests for an interview for this article.
The saga surrounding Weaver’s educational background is part of a statewide election that exemplifies national fights over public and private influence in education. In November, voters will choose between Weaver and her Democratic opponent, Lisa Ellis, to replace the current superintendent, Molly Spearman, who will retire Jan. 1.
Ellis stands in stark contrast to Weaver. She’s been running her campaign while teaching English and communications to middle and high schoolers. She’s also the founder of the state’s SC for Ed movement, a political effort to advocate teacher salary raises, lower class sizes, and better conditions for teachers in schools. She said she’s running to be the “teacher voice” at the state policy level.
“I realized, if nobody else was going to do it, then I needed to step up and put my hat in the ring to really fight for our students and our teachers,” Ellis said in an interview.
While many midterm elections this year are dominated by debates over rising cultural issues in schools, the two South Carolina candidates represent a more familiar political debate over school choice, with Weaver pushing to expand private and charter school funding options for parents and Ellis promising to keep public funding with public schools.
An outsider or disruption to the status quo?
Weaver’s supporters aren’t deterred by the knowledge that she doesn’t have a master’s degree. For some of them, the degree requirement represents a need for a disruption to the state’s status quo.
South Carolina schools, like all education systems, were impacted by the pandemic. In 2020-21, 42.6 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in reading, and even fewer—37.3 percent—met expectations in math. Both of those numbers were down from around the 45 percent of students who met or exceeded expectations in both reading and math in 2018-19. Weaver’s supporters believe a person outside the education field could provide a fresh perspective to improve student achievement.
“Every superintendent of education in the state of South Carolina in the last 100 years has been trained or educated or received diplomas in educating children and has a master’s degree,” said Cindy Bohn Coats, a former member of the Charleston County school board, who endorsed Weaver for the position. “Clearly, that’s not the solution.”
Coats also ran in the Republican primary for the position before dropping out because she doesn’t have a master’s degree. If Weaver doesn’t manage to get her degree in time for the election, her candidacy could be contested in court, said Bob Oldendick, a political science and policy professor at the University of South Carolina.
Much of the excitement over Weaver’s campaign revolves around school choice. The Palmetto Promise Institute, the conservative think tank that Weaver leads, devotes much of its education work to promoting school choice policies, such as education scholarship accounts and the expansion of charter schools. If elected, Weaver plans to expand school choice scholarships, support public charter schools, expand open enrollment for public schools, allow tax credits for home-school expenses, grow online course programs, and allow school innovations “like learning pods and micro-schools to develop without bureaucratic red tape,” according to her website.
“Competition increases quality for everyone,” Weaver said in a school choice campaign video posted April 8. “That’s the kind of power, competition, and opportunity that we could unleash right here in South Carolina.”
The nominee has managed to win over major players in the school choice movement both in South Carolina and beyond. So far, Weaver had received nearly $681,748 in cash and in-kind contributions to her campaign as of Sept. 30, according to her October campaign-finance reports.
Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican and advocate of school choice programs, and his wife, Diana Rauner, donated $7,000 in total to Weaver. Weaver also received $11,500 from Ben Navarro and Kelly Navarro, the founders of Meeting Street Schools, a nonprofit that has established public-private partnership schools in Charleston, S.C.
The Tomorrow is Meaningful PAC, a conservative political action committee affiliated with S.C. Republican Sen. Tim Scott, donated $3,500. Online for-profit virtual schools Learning.com and K12 Solutions both donated $3,500 each as well.
“Anybody that’s seen her career is going to recognize more movement in [the school choice] direction,” Oldendick said. “The type of people that are interested in that, that are supportive of that, whether they are in state or out of state, they are willing to give more money.”
Although school choice is the central part of her campaign, Weaver hasn’t shied away from the cultural issues that have defined the campaigns of many Republican nominees throughout the country. On her website, Weaver says she plans to create a Parents’ Bill of Rights, ensure transparency in curriculum, and “speak up against any political indoctrination in South Carolina schools.”
Weaver’s plans are concerning to Ellis’ supporters, who argue that her lack of a degree and commitment to school choice would be detrimental to children in South Carolina.
“If she’s going to shortchange a degree, will she shortchange our children?” said Sherry East, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, which has endorsed Ellis for the position. “I would hope that whoever gets elected after this is all over, that we will have a seat at the table to come up with solutions for our schools. I do have a concern that [Weaver] will not include us or we will be boxed out if she’s elected.”
Weaver declined to participate in the education association’s political action committee endorsement process, East said.
Ellis wins over S.C. educators
While Weaver’s campaign has drawn vast support from school choice leaders and conservative politicians, Ellis’ work has been defined by grassroots efforts to win over educators.
Ellis gathered $66,356 in in-kind and cash contributions through June 30. In the same time period, Weaver outearned Ellis by nearly $500,000. Many of Ellis’ donations come from professors, teachers, and principals, and she’s won endorsements from statewide education advocacy groups, including SC for Ed, the SCEA, the state’s Safe Schools Project, and the Lowcountry Teacher Advocates.
“[Ellis] will be someone who will have teachers at the table to talk about the solutions and look at the data and guide how to start this enormous task of improving education in South Carolina,” East said.
If she were elected, Ellis would focus her attention on teacher recruitment and retention, providing mental health support to students, maintaining public funding for public schools by opposing many of the school choice efforts Weaver supports, and improving school safety.
The Center for Educator Recruitment Retention and Advancement, a South Carolina nonprofit dedicated to providing solutions for teacher shortages, found that the state had about 1,100 teacher vacancies out of some 56,000 full-time positions in its most recent survey in February. Ellis hopes to tackle the chronic vacancy issue by raising teacher salaries, lowering class sizes, and addressing teacher working conditions.
“The number one crisis we’re dealing with in South Carolina right now is the teacher shortage, the lack of teachers in classrooms,” she said. “That impacts every other aspect of a student’s achievement in schools.”
Ellis has also fought against fears of critical race theory and political indoctrination in schools.
“I call it chasing ghosts,” she said. “You’re chasing issues that don’t exist … and trying to take the focus away from what are the actual issues.”
Even with the support of the state’s educators and the fact that Weaver doesn’t have a master’s degree taken into consideration, Ellis faces an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated state, Oldendick said.
“Republicans have this overwhelming advantage certainly statewide,” he said. “For the last three election cycles, really no one has been able to crack it.”
Ellis isn’t dismayed by that fact. If she doesn’t win, she hopes she at least opens doors for teachers to have more of a say on the policy level.
“If I’m courageous enough to run for this position from the classroom, I hope other teachers and former teachers will be courageous enough to fight for their profession,” she said.
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