Does the Education Superintendent Matter?


A recent debate between the two major party candidates vying to become South Carolina’s next Superintendent of Education failed to reveal many substantive policy differences. Both candidates agreed the state’s educational funding system was “outdated,” both expressed support for a limited level of “public school choice,” and neither candidate expressed strong opinions one way or another on Common Core (or indeed on any other state standards). There was one difference – Molly Spearman supports the ongoing review of state standards, while Tom Thompson does not – but that’s the extent of major disagreement.

This non-debate may alarm those who share the views of outgoing Superintendent Mick Zais, particularly on common core. Unlike the candidates running to replace him, Zais has been a vocal critic of the federalized standards system. It may come as temporary relief to opponents of Common Core, then – and to proponents of full, not just public, school choice – to know that the State Superintendent has little to no ability to affect these issues.

But the state superintendent’s relative powerlessness is a problem – and a major one.

The superintendent’s powers consist largely – not exclusively, but largely – of administrative duties carried out at the behest of unelected education policymakers. He or she has seven general duties laid out in the state code. Out of these seven, three are requirements to serve and carry out the policy decisions of the State Board of Education. The remaining four duties are these: staffing and administering the Department of Education; general supervision and management of public school funds provided by the state or federal government; informing the public of public school needs and problems; and printing informative bulletins, manuals, and circulars.

The true power over the K-12 education system rests with two boards devoid of any accountability to the general public. These two entities are the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee (EOC). The membership of each body is overwhelmingly chosen by legislators. Of the 17 members of the State Board, the Governor appoints only one member. The remaining members are chosen by legislators. Of the 18 members of the EOC, three are appointed by the governor, one is the superintendent (as a non-voting member), and the remaining 14 are legislators or their appointments. The Education Accountability Act, passed in 1998, gave these two hybrid boards the power to adopt or develop statewide academic standards and assessments for K-12 education. The State Board is tasked with other significant powers: adopting governing policies for public schools, granting and revoking teacher certificates, and selecting textbooks and other instructional materials to be used in K-12 schools among other powers.

Given this murky and accountability-free power structure, it is little wonder that Common Core or similar “college and career ready” standards have stayed in place despite opposition from the governor, superintendent, and probably a majority of citizens. The most recent policy dust-up over Common Core highlighted the limits of executive branch power and the widespread misunderstanding of the office of superintendent.

In April, Superintendent Zais attempted to unilaterally withdraw South Carolina from the Smarter Balanced Consortium, the entity that was developing standardized tests aligned to Common Core standards. The Superintendent had significant authority in this case, but that authority derived mainly from the agreement under which South Carolina entered the consortium. Barring another special agreement, it’s highly unlikely that any future superintendent will have the same power.

In any case, even with the Superintendent Zais’ announcement, the issue wasn’t ultimately decided until the legislature passed a bill officially withdrawing the state from the consortium and stating the state may not use its assessments. The bill also mandated a review of current standards (that is, Common Core) and the implementation of new “college and career ready” standards beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. To be clear, this legislation didn’t so much end Common Core in South Carolina as merely changed the name by which we will refer to the standards. Those who actually have power over standards are openly committed to maintaining “college and career ready” standards (as defined by the federal government) – which is to say, either Common Core or a standards system largely indistinguishable from it. Why? Because hundreds of millions of federal education dollars are contingent on the state’s implementation of “college and career ready” standards.

The entire episode should remind us where the power lies – with the legislature and the hybrid boards it controls. This balance of power affects policies on school choice and district funding as much as it affects standards and assessments. Citizens are led to believe they have an education advocate with substantive policy powers – the superintendent – when in fact they do not. As long as public debate remains focused on who will be superintendent rather than the proper power of the superintendent, citizens should expect little meaningful change.

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