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For Citizen Reporter Tom Hatfield, an Unlikely Intro to Writing

Editor’s note: This article kicks off a series of periodic profiles on The Nerve’s Citizen Reporters.

Hilton Head Island resident Tom Hatfield had no idea that his time spent in England decades ago would prepare him for his involvement in The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program.

The Citizen Reporter program gives grassroots activists, and other South Carolinians involved in local civic life, an opportunity to make their voices heard by helping The Nerve monitor and report on government, and hold politicians accountable.

Citizen Reporters can contribute to The Nerve in a number of ways, including writing traditional news stories, filming meetings, or sending Freedom of Information requests to state and local government entities.

Citizen Reporters also can interview politicians and other government officials, as Hatfield has done with state Sen. Tom Davis and Rep. Shannon Erickson, both R-Beaufort.

Hatfield was born in Indiana and has lived all over the world, but he has spent the past 20 years in South Carolina where he has involved himself in local politics. Hatfield spent 14 years as moderator of the Hilton Head Island First Monday lunch group. He was vice chairman of the Beaufort County Republican Party in 2007 and 2008. And he is currently treasurer of the Hilton Head Island Republican Club.

“When I was very young, my father sat me down and said, ‘Tom, I have something very important to tell you: You’re a Republican,’” recalls Hatfield, laughing. Hatfield said he didn’t think about it much at the time, and it was not until he was in his 40s that he really began to understand the difference between a liberal and a conservative.

“I knew the definition, but I didn’t really understand,” he said. “After a bit of studying, I decided I would much rather be a conservative.”

Hatfield graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering.

“I spent most of my working life in industry, which involved a lot of letter writing,” Hatfield recalls.

He says he was first inspired to write during his time spent in the United Kingdom, 40 miles north of London. He says the British speak so beautifully, it encouraged him to choose his words more carefully.

In addition, Hatfield credited his British secretary with inspiring him to become a better writer. As a part of his job, he “used to dictate letters … and eventually I learned from her how to write proper letters.”

Hatfield traces his roots as a Citizen Reporter back about a decade ago to when Ed McMullen, the previous president of The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, spoke to the Hilton Head Island First Monday Republican lunch group.

Current Policy Council President Ashley Landess soon followed suit and also spoke to the group.

Subsequently, Hatfield became one of The Nerve’s first Citizen Reporters.

“It’s vitally important to let people in this state know what’s going on in their government,” Hatfield says of his interest in the program. “So many things are done behind closed doors.”

“I do enjoy writing, and I’m also very opinionated,” he laughed. “Those two things go very well together.”

When it comes to public policy issues, Hatfield’s strongest passion is education. His piece about giving parents the option to send their children to high-performing schools regardless of zoning is a testament to his advocacy.

When Hatfield first moved to South Carolina, he was surprised to discover that the state was home to one of the most lackluster education systems in the nation. “I quickly learned South Carolina is close to dead last in academic achievement, and I was appalled by that.”

Hatfield soon became one of the first board members of the S. C. Public Charter School District, a position he maintained for four years.

Eventually, Hatfield met with other charter school leaders in the state, and he has been a staunch advocate of charter schools for 15 years.

Hatfield emphasizes that charter schools have to be sponsored, and in the past local school districts have sponsored them. “That’s competition,” said Hatfield.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford recommended a statewide charter school district be set up in 2006 to sponsor charter schools. There are now 43 such charter schools in the state, according to the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina.

The difference between charter schools and traditional public schools is that charter schools manage themselves. They determine their own curriculum, and they are able to hire and fire teachers, said Hatfield. But most importantly, they have to perform.

If charter schools don’t achieve academic success they are closed. “Unlike public schools; if they don’t perform, what can you do?”

“Traditional public schools teach the class, but charter schools teach the students,” said Hatfield, explaining that charter schools seek to implement methods customized to fit the child individually.

“They do an excellent job educating students,” Hatfield says. “You rarely hear parents say, ‘I want to take my child out of a charter school.’”

While Hatfield is most passionate about education, he says he also is very politically motivated and likes to write about what is going on at the moment.

In addition to interviewing legislators in his reporting work for The Nerve, Hatfield assisted on a story about a casino proposal met with opposition in Jasper County; and he has penned several pieces for the “On Our Nerves: Viewpoints” section, including one on voter ID.

Ideally, Hatfield envisions a government with limited power that accepts “competitive capitalism” as one of America’s distinctive traits.

“Government derives its powers from the governed and not the other way around,” he says.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.

Accountability General Assembly K-12

S.C. Public Charter School District Tom Hatfield Citizen Reporter South Carolina Policy Council