- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - In the crowded Republican race for state superintendent, opposition to Common Core has started to sound like white noise at candidate forums. What the eight candidates do to separate themselves from the pack will go a long way in determining who wins the party’s nomination for the top education post.

But since appealing to the conservative base is a must in this race, don’t expect those differences to be too great.

Hot issues include what role should education play in meeting the demands of a changing economy, giving parents school choice, closing the technology gap for rural areas and school safety.

The only candidate to launch a statewide television campaign ad so far has been Sally Atwater, widow of the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater. The special needs teacher took out a $47,500 loan to herself and had a total of $58,500 cash on hand as of March 31. Only the executive director of the state Association of School Administrators Molly Spearman raised more, with $67,500 available.

Activist Sheri Few had $24,000, followed by attorney Amy Cofield with $23,000; former deputy superintendent Meka Childs, with more than $12,000; Charleston County School Board member Elizabeth Moffly, almost $3,000; Anderson County Board member Gary Burgess, $2000; and USC professor Don Jordan, $700.

The leading fundraisers, Atwater and Spearman, have stressed for South Carolina’s education to be overhauled to meet the workforce needs of its growing economy. They advocate vocational career training, funding of the ‘STEM’ fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and support of Gov. Nikki Haley’s $30 million plan to boost the technology infrastructure of rural schools.

“I think we need to do mentoring programs with businesses and communities. We need to make sure that our students have the skills for the 21st century,” Atwater said.

Few notably stands out for her opposition to this shift and wants a return to classical education.

“We are pigeonholing students at very young ages into career paths and the whole education experience has become about workforce development,” Few said. “We used to provide an academic foundation for children and then children and their families decided what kind of careers and livelihoods they would take on in the future.”

Another favorite talking point among candidates is supporting parents sending their children to private schools through taxpayer-funded voucher or tax credits. Possibly the most vocal advocate of “parental choice” is Childs, who has the backing of retiring Superintendent of Education Mark Zais.

“I believe in educational freedom. I want to make sure that we are empowering parents to take of the choices that best meet their children’s needs,” said Childs, who thinks the state should also support magnet and charter schools, home schooling, apprentice programs and virtual learning.

Debate has shifted to what could replace Common Core after the Senate returned to the House legislation requiring state panels to review Common Core standards of math and reading and implement any changes by the 2015-2016 school year.

Few welcomed the measure but warned Common Core could still be repackaged under a different name. She prefers South Carolina-created standards but recommended as alternatives the rigorous reading standard of California and math standard of Massachusetts.

Moffly, who won 26 out of 46 counties in the 2010 primary and came second to Zais, thinks the Iowa standards would be best.

“It’s the national-norm test,” Moffly said. “Students perform well on it. You can actually compare yourself to other states and, unlike the ACT, it hasn’t been revised.”

Concerning safety, Spearman said schools should work with mental health counsellors and anti-bullying programs as preventive measures. Atwater said she would convene with law enforcement and survey educators to decide on how to improve safety.

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