By Tony Kukulich
Addressing the shortage of teachers in the state was central to Lisa Ellis’ message when she appeared in Beaufort on Saturday to make her pitch for election as the next South Carolina superintendent of education.
She noted that at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, there were 1,000 classrooms in the state without a teacher. By December 2021, another 977 teachers had left the classroom.
“The number one problem in South Carolina today is, not only do we not have enough teachers, we don’t have enough instructional assistants,” Ellis told The Island News. “We don’t have enough bus drivers. We have a shortage of any of those positions that affect children. We can talk about all of the other issues, but none of that is going to get improved until we have high-quality teachers, dependable bus drivers, all of them in places to help student’s achievement.”
Appearing at Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant on Saturday, Sept. 10, Ellis spoke for more than an hour to roughly two dozen in attendance about her qualifications and her platform.
“I really want to win this office because I’m horrified about the alternative,” she told supporters.
Ellis, a Democrat running for elected office for the first time, has more than 20 years of experience in the classroom. She is currently a high school teacher in Richland County School District 2 near Columbia. A native of South Carolina, Ellis holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Charleston and advanced degrees from Columbia College and Clemson University. She began teaching in 2001 and has since taught English, leadership, and communications courses in middle school and high school.
Republican Molly Spearman, the current state superintendent of education, opted not to seek reelection in 2022 after two terms in office. Spearman’s decision led to a six-candidate Republican primary in June. Kathy Maness and Ellen Weaver were the two top vote getters, though neither received the votes necessary to secure the nomination to run in November’s general election. While Maness pulled more votes than Weaver in the primary, Weaver handily defeated her in the runoff.
Ellis defeated Gary Burgess and Jerry Govan Jr. in the Democratic primary with 50.1% of the votes cast, just enough to avoid a runoff with second-place finisher Burgess.
Weaver’s qualifications for superintendent of education have been questioned. The state initiated new requirements for the role including a “minimum of a master’s degree and substantive and broad-based experience in the field of public education including, but not limited to, service as a classroom teacher, principal, other school or school district administrator, school district superintendent, or other education policy making body at either the state or local level or any combination of them.”
Weaver is the CEO of a conservative think tank and has no practical experience in education, and she does not have a master’s degree. She reportedly enrolled in a master’s degree program at Bob Jones University this spring.
Ellis’ path to seeking office started four years ago when she founded a Facebook group, SC for Ed, a grassroots organization advocating for educators and students.
“I’ve got 22 years of public education experience as a teacher,” Ellis said. “I’ve been fighting for teachers and students for the last four years. I know where the policy is not helping, where it is instead damaging our schools. I’m all about supporting and uplifting public schools, and that is very different from my opponent’s platform.”
The South Carolina Education Association (SCEA) recently endorsed Ellis in the race.
“The choice for The SCEA members was clear,” SCEA President Sherry East said. “Lisa Ellis is an authentic advocate and ally to fight for students, families, and educators. That is why the PAC voted unanimously to make this important endorsement. Lisa was born and raised in South Carolina and has valuable experience serving students from the front lines of our public schools. We call on all educators and supporters of public education to unite to elect the candidate who is not only the most qualified but who will do the most good for all South Carolina students and school staff.”
During her appearance, Ellis was critical of the SC Education Oversight Committee (EOC), an organization of 18 appointees tasked with providing regular reviews of the state’s education improvement process, assessing how schools are doing and evaluating the standards that schools must meet “to build the education system needed to compete in this century.”
“They are the ones that ultimately approve the state standards, what teachers are teaching,” she explained. They ultimately approve the school report card, which is one of the reasons why we’re in the situation that we’re in.”
Ellis said that many of the EOC members have no background in education and should not be making decisions about education. Weaver, she noted, is a member of the EOC.
“The very candidate who wants to control what kids are learning, (who) wants to ban books, is the very person who approved what teachers are teaching in the first place,” Ellis said. “Somebody help me make it make sense.”
Attendee Anne Errington asked about Ellis’ position on the hot-button topic of critical race theory.
“My classroom should reflect everyone who comes through that door – all of their perspectives and all of their points of view,” Ellis said. “That’s what our teaching should also reflect. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and we have to prepare our students for that diverse world.”
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.