- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The Democratic race for South Carolina Superintendent of Education isn’t as crowded as the Republican contest but it is just as heated.

The race has largely focused on how to properly fund public education, increasing teacher pay, creating a comprehensive and fair teacher evaluation system and strengthening the role and morale of the state Department of Education.

The four candidates are state Rep. Jerry Govan, Orangeburg; South Carolina State University dean of graduate studies Tom Thompson; former director of school transformation Montrio Belton; and former South Carolina Education Association President Sheila Gallagher, who has received the most attention over her call to legalize marijuana and tax the drug as a means of funding education.

The GOP primary features eight candidates. Hot-button issues include what role education should play in meeting the demands of a changing economy, giving parents school choice, closing the technology gap for rural areas and school safety.

After state Rep. Mike Anthony dropped out, it appeared up until the filing deadline that Belton would run unopposed in the Democratic primary. But Govan, Thompson and Gallagher entered and turned the primary into a race.

At the heart of the Democratic platform shared by all the candidates is the need to ensure equitable funding for all schools and fully fund “base student costs” that have drastically decreased since they switched from being primarily dependent on property taxes to sales taxes.

The candidates also oppose private school vouchers, saying that would undermine public education in a state that they believe has not fully funded public schools to begin with.

Many of the candidates said education funding can immediately be increased if laws are properly enforced and exemptions are closed. They also said simplifying the formula would allow the public to better understand how schools are funded and help eliminate funding discrepancies from district to district.

However, the candidates differ on the long-term solution to funding and improving education.

In addition to legalizing marijuana, Gallagher said funding could be improved if the state stopped denying federal education grants by opposing federal programs such as Smarter Balanced and Race to the Top.

As a legislator, Govan said improving education ultimately lies with a coordinated state effort to develop economically depressed areas such as the “Corridor of Shame” along Interstate 95. Until then, Govan recommends finding alternative funding for school districts in place of the current sales tax which fluctuates with the economy.

Despite Belton’s opposition to private school vouchers, he said he would push for public school choice for parents and provide transportation for students to their preferred school, even across district lines. He also said he would declare an emergency in failing school districts to help bring immediate attention to their needs.

Thompson emphasizes community involvement and school safety. He said he would ensure the Department of Education keeps a close working relationship with school districts, which he said the current superintendent does not maintain. He said parents and businesses should be more involved in their schools to help students feel safer. Thompson also supports more community projects for students.

The primary is June 10. The Democratic candidates will hold a televised debate Thursday.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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