Her predecessor tried to cut funding for arts education, but newly elected state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman is offering a sharply contrasting message to arts supporters:
“You’ve got my ear and my support.”
Spearman, a former state legislature who spent 18 years as a choral music teacher in public schools, is pledging to be a staunch advocate for arts education in South Carolina schools.
“I hope my friends in the arts community realize that they’ve got a friend, someone who understands the importance of the arts as a state superintendent,” Spearman said.
Spearman said she’s a strong supporter of two state arts-education programs that in the past have been targeted for elimination by some of her fellow Republicans, including outgoing state Superintendent Mick Zais and Gov. Nikki Haley.
Spearman’s election is being widely praised by advocates for arts education in the public schools.
“I think it’s great that the state’s lead educator is someone who has an understanding that the arts are an integral part of all children’s education, not just something extra they do between math and English,” said Braxton Ballew, education director for the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.
Ellen Westkaemper, who oversees education programs for the Greenville Art Museum, said Spearman’s election is good news particularly for students in rural South Carolina schools who may have less exposure to the arts.
“I was very happy when I saw her name on the ballot because I’ve known her for many years as a fantastic arts educator,” Westkaemper said. “South Carolina has a lot of great things happening in the field of arts education and I think Molly is really going to be able to make sure things are equally distributed to all parts of the state, guaranteeing access in some of the rural and remote parts of the state.”
Spearman said she would support the state Department of Education’s primary funding stream for the arts, the Arts Curricula Innovation Grants Program.
Arts educators can use the grants in a variety of ways to enhance a school’s arts programs, from professional development to designing an arts curriculum with consultants.
“In 2013-14, 73 grants benefited 105,890 students throughout South Carolina,” said Betty Plumb, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, an umbrella organization of arts groups in the state.
Zais provoked the wrath of arts advocates by twice recommending that the $1.5 million program be eliminated.
Attempts to reach Zais for comment were unsuccessful.
Spearman said she’s committed to making sure all South Carolina students have access to arts education, particularly in the state’s poorer rural districts.
“I’ve seen the disparities of school districts that exist side by side,” Spearman said.
In the 1980s as a choral teacher, Spearman moved from the well-funded Chapin Elementary School to the then-struggling Saluda High School.
“I moved 18 miles and I went from having everything possible at my fingertips — a keyboard lab, a guitar lab, a beautiful auditorium — to working in an old portable with an upright piano,” Spearman said.
“I still understand those disparities and I’m going to be speaking up for those children across the state,” she added.
Spearman said a state arts education program, the Arts in Basic Curriculum project, dramatically transformed Saluda High School’s arts curriculum for the better.
“I wrote a grant and Saluda was one of the first sites in the Arts in Basic Curriculum project,” she said. “Because of that support, we were able to bring in resources, buy instruments and bring in artists-in-residence. We totally changed the arts program in Saluda. I’m a huge supporter of the Arts in Basic Curriculum.”
The ABC program is funded by the South Carolina Arts Commission, an agency that Haley sought to eliminate three years in a row. Her vetoes, however, were overturned by the Legislature. This year, Haley chose not to veto funding for the agency.
“In South Carolina, the arts are under constant scrutiny, and in recent years, our state arts commission has come very close to extinction,” said Alan Ethridge, executive director of Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council. “Ms. Spearman will be an excellent advocate for arts education and ultimately the arts throughout the state.”
Plumb said the ABC program funds initiatives to enhance arts programs already in existence in a school.
“It might be paying for a dance or theater teacher for a year if a district’s finances can’t cover those things,” Plumb said. “It might be for other programs or to implement a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) project.”
Spearman’s involvement with the arts extends back to her childhood. She began playing piano and organ at her small country church when she was 12 years old. She and her family still attend the same church today, and she continues to serve as the music director and organist.
Spearman majored in music education at Lander College (now University) and was elected student body president. She later earned a master of education supervision from George Washington University and an education specialist degree from the University of South Carolina.
Her first teaching job was as a choral teacher at Gilbert High School in Lexington School District 1.
She taught for a few years in Maryland before returning with her family to South Carolina. Spearman continued to teach choral music before becoming a principal. In 1993, Spearman was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, serving four terms.
In 1998, Spearman was appointed deputy superintendent of education for governmental relations at the state Department of Education. For the past nine years, Spearman has led the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.
“I’m excited about having a former arts educator with such a range of experience as our superintendent of education,” said Anne Tromsness, director of education for the Warehouse Theatre.
Spearman said the arts enhance — rather than detract from — a school’s other academic subjects.
“I know the importance of the arts,” Spearman said. “It’s not just about teaching an appreciation of the beautiful things in this world. It’s part of the basic curriculum. You can learn math and science and teach all of the curriculum through the arts. I understand and appreciate that and I’m going to be pushing that.”
The arts also play a crucial role in keeping students interested in school and from dropping out, Spearman said.
“We’re going to be pushing the idea that the way to increase the graduation rate is to engage them while they’re in school, and the arts do that for most every student,” Spearman said.
An emphasis nationwide on standardized testing has negatively impacted the arts, but that may be changing, Spearman said.
“South Carolina used to be a leader in arts education and we still have some very strong programs, but it’s true that, because of high-stakes testing, a lot of the funding for arts has been reduced in all states,” Spearman said. “But I see that pendulum swinging back. I think people have realized that was a mistake. If we’re going to teach the whole child and individualize and engage students in their learning, there’s no content area for that better than the arts.”
Image: Arts in the Basic Curriculum presentation, South Florence High School (2013)