James Werrell

Odd choice to head S.C. education board

South Carolina has found another way to distinguish itself from the rest of the nation: The Palmetto State now is the only state to elect someone who home-schools her children as head of the State Board of Education.

Kristin Maguire, 39, of Clemson was voted chairwoman-elect of the board on Wednesday. She will assume the post in 2009. Although Maguire attended public schools and is daughter of a public school teacher, she teaches her four daughters, ages 8 to 14, at home.

In a 9-7 vote by the board, Maguire defeated fellow board member Fred F. "Trip" DuBard III, who had been the choice of the board's nominating committee. DuBard, a longtime advocate of education, chairs The School Foundation, the state's largest private foundation for K-12 public education, and has three children who attend public schools in Florence.

If appointing a home-schooler to head the board that oversees many aspects of the state's public education system seems wacky, it should. Why award that post to someone who has so little faith in public schools that she teaches her children at home? In fact, why is she even on the board that shapes policies affecting instruction, testing, hiring decisions and teacher discipline in the state's public education system?

Maguire, in an effort to brush off that contradiction, says, "That's pretty much off the record, that's out of bounds."

In fact, it's entirely relevant. And it is within the bounds of the public's interest to question why she is qualified to chair the Board of Education if she forsakes public education for her own children.

Maguire first was elected to the board in 2000 by local lawmakers. She then was reappointed in 2004 by Gov. Mark Sanford.

Sanford, whose own children attend private schools, saw a kindred spirit in Maguire: Among other things, both want to divert taxpayer money to help pay for children to attend private schools.

Maguire is affiliated with South Carolinians for Responsible Government, one of the chief lobbying groups for private-school vouchers. She also is co-founder and advisory board member of South Carolina Parents in Education, a group that champions taxpayer money for private schools.

But that is not the only item on the group's agenda. It also lobbies for abstinence-only sex education courses and the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools.

Maguire has consistently backed the campaign to require public schools to offer alternatives to evolution in the classroom, including last year's efforts by the Education Oversight Committee to change the standards for teaching biology.

The EOC is a group created by the Legislature to help oversee school curriculum. While only the State Board of Education can write curriculum guidelines, the wording must be approved by both the EOC and the board before they can be adopted.

This put the EOC at odds with the board last year when the EOC proposed changes in the biology curriculum. The new guidelines would have required students to "critically analyze" the validity of evolutionary theory.

After much debate and the urging of many of the state's science teachers not to weaken science education and force teachers to bring alternative theories into the classroom, the board voted 10-6 to deny the changes. But Maguire was among the six who voted with the EOC.

Most board members rotate off after one four-year term. But Maguire is certain to be reappointed for a third term by Sanford when her current term ends next December. She then would assume the chairmanship.

Former state schools Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, who was a non-voting member of the board, thinks Maguire has been an impediment to progress and should have given someone else a chance to serve.

"While she does read the material and come prepared, she represents an extreme, right-wing view. She looks at every decision by the board through a right-wing lens. ... So many times, something needed to be passed and was held up just because I recommended it and was a Democrat," said Tenenbaum.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler was even more blunt: "Having Kristin Maguire chair the State Board of Education is akin to Dick Cheney teaching a gun safety course. What does a woman who home- schools her four children know about South Carolina public schools?"

Maguire's defenders say she is bright, always well prepared for monthly meetings, articulate and willing to address tough issues confronting the board. And she may be all those things.

But, while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with home-schooling or private schools, someone who home-schools her children should not be head of the board that sets policy for our state's public schools.

South Carolinians who long for better educational opportunities for every child in the state need to make their voices heard in Columbia and demand that the Board of Education represents the interests of those who have a stake in and truly are committed to public education.