Last week at the College of Charleston, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman delivered what was billed as the State of the Schools speech.
What I heard was the single most encouraging speech I’ve heard about education in South Carolina in a long, long time.
It was not a traditional “state of…” speech — full of facts, figures and overblown political claims and promises. Instead, what I saw was a committed, caring schoolteacher from rural Saluda County (who just happens to be in charge of our state’s public education) talking with folks about our children, what’s good and what’s bad about our schools and what we need to do to fix them.
After listening to her talk about her genuine love for our state and our children, I decided that Molly Spearman may be the distilled essence of positive, traditional South Carolina values.
Her life story sounds like something that would make John Boy Walton jealous: She grew up on a farm in rural Saluda County. In addition to her farm chores, at age 12 she began playing the piano and organ at her small country church. She and her family still go to that same church and she is the music director and organist.
She went to the local college (Lander) where she was student body president (of course) and then went “off” to get an advanced degree at a big-time school (George Washington University). On a blind date, she met her future husband, a Clemson student from the next county over.
After her education, she taught music for 18 years and was named Teacher of the Year (naturally) and then became a state legislator where she was known as a fierce advocate for children. She later worked in the Department of Education and then became head of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, a professional organization of more than 3,600 principals, superintendents and school leaders.
She is probably the best-prepared superintendent of education that we have had in generations.
But what was most striking in her speech was not her academic smarts (which she has) or her command of policy issues, fact and figures (which she demonstrated) but the genuine warmth and affection — even love — that she showed for our state and its children.
What did she say was the most important thing for teachers to do? “Love your students.” And she means it; it didn’t come across as hokey or canned. She is genuine.
And after four years of her predecessor, who seemed far more interested in extremist ideology than in education, her reception among classroom teachers and the boost in their morale has been palpable. As one teacher from Summerville told me, “When Molly was elected, teachers thought they had died and gone to heaven.”
Before continuing on with my gushing, it’s time for full disclosure. I did not support Spearman when she ran for state superintendent. She is a Republican and I’m a Democrat. And, as of late, I have been working with her and her staff on an innovative education project called World Class Scholars and they have been nothing but terrific. As is obvious, I have what my preacher father called “the zeal of a convert.”
What was most exciting to me was her enthusiasm for what might happen with education reform. After a 21-year lawsuit by the 39 poorest school districts (the Abbeville case) the state Supreme Court has mandated that the Legislature seriously do something to fix these schools in the Corridor of Shame. Spearman believes that for the first time in a generation, the stars are aligned to get real reform in education. Let’s all hope so.
Clearly she knows what needs to be done and is not shying away from the tough issues, even the most controversial of issues such as race.
On teacher pay — “It’s ridiculous that an early teacher has to work two to three jobs…Our teacher salary schedule is so messed up, it’s beyond repair.”
On early intervention, whatever the cost — “We have to get to children quickly — in year one.”
On going beyond the three Rs — “The soft skills are just as important to overall success and have been neglected. Children who learn how to solve problems develop grit and a commitment to something that builds character and life skills. They are successful in life, not just successful on test scores.”
On too many school districts — “Consolidation — some don’t want to talk about this, but there are some very small districts that are too small and very inefficient and I think we have to come up with some incentives.”
On segregation — “I think there are some conversations that need to take place in these very, very small (school) districts, which are, quite honestly, still segregated by race and socioeconomics. …It’s time for the adults to do the right thing.”
So, can we all relax now and let Spearman fix education in South Carolina?’ Hardly.
We still have a Legislature that seems more interested in posturing and postponing than in actually doing anything. We still have too many parents who won’t (or don’t know how) to get involved to help their children. And, we still have too many of us who may not have kids in public school, so we simply don’t do our part to fix the schools.
But this I do know, we have a terrific superintendent who says the stars are aligning (Abbeville case) for a once-in a-lifetime opportunity to get serious education reform.
Will it happen? I don’t know, but I’m betting on the country girl from Saluda.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, and independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.