Education receives special attention every election cycle – especially when it comes time to select a new governor. Voters particularly want to hear what gubernatorial candidates are going to do for education throughout the state.
“People rightly or wrongly look to the governor’s office and say we are electing you governor so we expect you to make a difference,” says the state’s outgoing chief executive, Mark Sanford. “The reality is that the superintendent of education is going to drive much more of what happens in education than any governor will, but all the debate is going to be spent in the governor’s office.
“You have a juxtaposition of public perceptions about who is doing what,” he adds.
Currently the superintendent of education in South Carolina is elected by the people, rather than appointed to the governor’s cabinet. The norm across the country is to have the state’s chief education official as a part of the governor’s cabinet.
By making the superintendent a part of the cabinet, Sanford believes more could get done. The governor has a unique ability to highlight education within the state that other people do not, because the governor brings with him the element of the microphone, he says.
Sanford adds that there is strength in numbers and strength in being part of a team.
“There is strength in terms of reality as well,” he says. “Right now what you have is that the education department will set a budget over here while the governor’s office is looking at a whole array of different pieces of government and will set it here, so you get this random sniping which is not good for anyone, much less for the kids. Political allegiance and financial reality is important.”
Barbara Nielson, a former South Carolina Department of Education superintendent who has 45 years of experience in education, echoes these sentiments, adding that having the superintendent as an appointed post would eliminate individuals from using the office as a “stepping stone.”
Having the governor and the superintendent working together as a team would make the system more efficient, Sanford believes.
South Carolina’s education system has had a history of inefficiency, but during Sanford’s term steps have been taken to improve effectiveness.
Examples Sanford cited included:
- Beginning to correlate the national board certification stipend to high needs areas within the state;
- Economizing money by fitting buses with the proper engines necessary for certain geographical areas; and
- Getting rid of the mandate which requires schools to have an acreage requirement which pulls schools out of downtown and eliminates the opportunity for students to walk or bike to campus.
Nielson adds that the size of the education department is too large. In order to be truly efficient a functional analysis must be done to get rid of unnecessary administrative posts. A single person has the capacity to effectively complete multiple jobs.
At times it seems that the system is more interested in its own well being than that of the state’s students, Sanford says.
“There are well meaning people in the system but systems have a way of protecting themselves,” he says. “None of us like homework requirements or being tested, but the reality is we all are. Performance matters whether in the military, education, or business.
“There haven’t been at times strict performance criteria on education because people haven’t had to,” Sanford adds.
Nielson stresses that, “the system can’t exist for the system. It has to exist for the education of the children.”
Sanford’s conclusion isn’t surprising, according to Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
Over time, so-called “input policies” – which includes efforts to lower classroom sizes, increase teacher education, have more experienced teachers in the classroom, and increase expenditures per student – have failed, according to Hanushek.
Since 1960, average classroom sizes are smaller, teachers are more educated and experienced, and real expenditure per student has increased from $3,170 to $11,674 in 2007. However, the scores registered by 17-year old students on the NAEP math and reading tests since 1971 have in essence stayed the same.
Hanushek thinks systems should focus more on performance incentive such as: performance pay, rewards for high performing schools and choice.
Nielson supports the idea of performance pay and school choice but is skeptical about Hanushek’s blanket suggestion that “input policies” do not work.
She says that research indicates that smaller class sizes do work; however, many times they do not have positive effects because they are not implemented correctly.
“Implementation is key,” she says.
Sanford advocates the idea of performance-based pay for teachers, with the idea being that to get good teachers into bad schools you may need to pony up.
“Too much money is lost in administration and is not put in the front line of education, which is the classroom and teacher pay,” he says.
Nielson believes the key to improving schools is to focus on the classroom. Administrative offices are too big and money is spent on multiple persons when the job could be done by a few.
The second thing is unleash that person so that they truly own the classroom, Sanford adds.
“Everyone needs to be able to have an imprint to feel like they are making a difference in life,” he said. “Teachers need to feel like they own their classroom and not worry about the red tape.”
This red tape is what drives many teachers out of the profession. Sanford advises. “If you want to keep someone in a place for a long time give them ownership and a greater deal of control.”
Nielson advises to take care of the classroom first because the classroom is the main unit of change.
Trevor Lightbody is a student at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at (803) 779-5022.