Ellen Weaver, conservative school choice advocate, wins GOP runoff for SC superintendent

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In a blow to South Carolina’s education establishment, the head of a conservative think tank who has pledged to expand school choice and defend parents’ rights has earned the Republican nomination for state schools chief, according to unofficial election results.

Ellen Weaver, president and CEO of the Palmetto Promise Institute, defeated teachers advocate Kathy Maness in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff, a development with potentially major implications for the state’s public schools.

Weaver, who does not currently meet the statutory requirements to hold office because she lacks an advanced degree, has cast herself as a bold reformer fighting to eradicate liberal ideologies like so-called critical race theory that she claims are seeping into public education.

“The fight to save our schools is a fight to save that American dream for the next generation,” she said at a debate last week. “If we don’t stand in the gap for our kids and against the wokeism and sexualization agendas that are coming out of Washington, we have lost our country.”

Weaver will face Democrat Lisa Ellis, a Richland 2 teacher and student activities director, in the general election. Ellis, who is best known for founding the grassroots teachers organization SC for Ed, won the Democratic primary outright earlier this month.

Weaver finished second to Maness in the crowded Republican primary, but because neither candidate got a majority of votes the race went to a runoff.

In the two weeks between the primary and the runoff, Weaver picked up the endorsement of third-place finisher, Travis Bedson, and Maness secured endorsements from former opponents Bryan Chapman and Lynda Leventis-Wells, who finished fourth and sixth, respectively.

Despite falling nearly 25,000 votes short of Maness in the primary, Weaver handily beat the former teacher and executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association in Tuesday’s runoff.

Her victory represents a rebuke of the status quo, represented by Maness and outgoing schools chief Molly Spearman, and extends the statewide trend of hard-right conservatives ousting more moderate Republican candidates.

Weaver is a 43-year-old Greenville native who spent the first 12 years of her career working as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading figure in the Tea Party movement. Since 2013, she has served as president and CEO of his think tank, which lobbies state lawmakers in support of conservative legislation, including school vouchers.

For the past four years, Weaver also has served on the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, the body responsible for approving academic content standards and assessments in K-12 public schools.

Despite being perceived as an outsider and a threat by public education advocates, Weaver is a favorite among South Carolina’s hard-right political elites.

She’s secured endorsements from dozens of prominent Republicans and has raised more money than all other candidates combined, with much of her campaign cash coming from private business interests and wealthy ideological philanthropists.

The contest between Weaver and Maness grew increasingly contentious over the past few weeks, with both candidates taking pointed swipes at each other’s integrity.

Weaver targeted Maness’ “liberal” record, which included past opposition to private school vouchers and support for municipal mask mandates at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

She tarred Maness as “Democrat–lite,” pumped out ads connecting her to state and national Democrats and created a website to house photos and clips of her appearing with or speaking on behalf of Democrats.

“If you’re happy with the way education in South Carolina is going then you have a champion in my opponent,” Weaver said at a recent debate. “She has failed to satisfactorily address the issues raised about her record because the fact is she can’t. Her liberal record and endorsements both with and from Democrats speak for themselves.”

Maness, in turn, brought attention to Weaver’s lack of credentials.

The school choice advocate is not an educator and does not have an advanced degree, which since 2018 has been a requirement of the position.

The state Republican Party certified Weaver’s candidacy based on her pledge that she would satisfy the position’s education requirement by Election Day.

She has since enrolled in an online master’s program at Bob Jones University that she said she would complete by October.

If she does, and she’s elected, she should be in the clear to hold the office, State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

She may, however, still face a legal challenge over her qualifications from one of her opponents or a group of Republican voters. In that case, a judge may end up determining whether Weaver is legally qualified to serve as state superintendent.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.