When Ellen Weaver, who founded a think tank in South Carolina, and worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., was running to be the Palmetto state’s superintendent of education, she often fondly invoked memories of her own school days. 

“I was blessed with opportunities to attend a variety of schools, including homeschooling for several years,” Weaver revealed in her campaign literature. “Learning from home provided me the incredible opportunity to work in the afternoons with Dad in his small residential construction business. This experience ingrained in me a small business work ethic and the power of simply telling the truth.”

Weaver won the race and was sworn in as Superintendent of Education last January, becoming the state’s first new superintendent in nearly a decade. Her predecessor had retired, ensuring that the race to succeed her would be a hard-fought affair. The job will be demanding, too.  

“Unfortunately, almost two-thirds of our children here in South Carolina are not reading or doing math at grade level,” Weaver tells IWF. “And so, we have our work cut out for us. The most important thing we can do is focus on literacy in the early grades. Everything in education rises and falls on a student having strong reading skills.”

“Even math is very much based on that literacy component,” Weaver continues, “when you think about students doing word problems, and analyzing the numbers that are in front of them.”  

To improve the prospects of South Carolina’s children, Weaver advocates school choice and a plan her campaign dubbed “STP”—for students, teachers, and parents. STP places emphasis on “foundational skills.” A cornerstone of developing foundational skills in students is training teachers. Weaver explains, “We have almost 6,000 teachers here in the elementary ages that have already been trained or are being trained in that very intensive instruction in the science of reading. It’s the same training that they used in Mississippi. It’s called LETRS training, L-E-T-R-S. And, so, my number one academic priority in the budget that I just presented to the South Carolina General Assembly is making sure every K-3 teacher in South Carolina receives this LETRS training.”

LETRS stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. According to a report on LETRS in Education Week, the program “instructs teachers in what literacy skills need to be taught, why, and how to plan to teach them. It is an intense course that can take up to 160 hours to complete. After Mississippi introduced LETRS training in 2014, the state made impressive gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“I look at Mississippi and say if it can happen in Mississippi, I know it can happen in South Carolina,” Weaver tells IWF. “We have many of the same challenges, very rural states, states that have a lot of poverty. And so, I see poverty as a challenge, not as an excuse. I believe that every student can learn, and I believe that that starts with giving them the skills of early literacy, which means instruction based in the science of reading and clear explicit instruction of phonics.”

When [Senator Jim] DeMint retired from the Senate, Weaver decided to do something new, and in 2013, DeMint helped her launch Palmetto Promise Institute, which is dedicated to promoting “a free and flourishing South Carolina, where every individual has the opportunity to reach their full, God-given potential.”

Mississippi, the perennially last state in national rankings, is emerging as a leader in the LETRS universe. South Carolina hopes to emulate its success. “There’s a parent engagement page in Mississippi that gives parents ideas of how they can be a partner in helping their children learn how to read,” Weaver says. “What a wonderful thing, to engage a parent as a partner in their child’s instruction. And I think that that’s really the big challenge of this moment that we’re in right now. During Covid, there was a lot of trust that was destroyed in our education system, and we have to rebuild that trust through transparency. But to sum it all up, I think that that really starts with inviting parents in as partners by providing them good actionable information.” 

As it was on the campaign trail, the concepts espoused in Critical Race Theory continue to be a hot topic of conversation once Weaver assumed office. “We all know that our colleges of education have been full of very leftwing ideology for a long time,” Weaver says. “And so, of course it makes sense that that is going to filter down eventually into our K-12 public schools. 

“I certainly have heard from parents and teachers who have seen things in our public schools that should not be there. So here in South Carolina, we have a provision in our budget that has prohibited discriminating against any child based on their race and prohibits curriculum that looks at children and makes them either an oppressor or a victim based on the color of their skin. I subscribe to Dr. King’s philosophy that every child should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And that’s what we’re striving for here in South Carolina. And so, wherever we find these kinds of ideas, which are more about politics and agendas than about true education of children, we are going to fight to root that out.”

Weaver is an advocate of transparency in education, which means that parents have access to information, whether it is what is being taught in the classroom or how education funds are spent. Weaver has been a life-long advocate of school choice, and she has worked with the General Assembly to expand the options available to South Carolina families. 

To improve the prospects of South Carolina’s children, Weaver advocates school choice and a plan her campaign dubbed “STP”—for students, teachers, and parents. STP places emphasis on “foundational skills.”

Ellen Weaver was born in Greenville, South Carolina. Her parents met as undergraduates at Bob Jones University, the Christian college in Greenville. Bob Jones was a family tradition. Ellen’s grandparents went to Bob Jones, too. Ellen’s mother was from Iowa, and, when Ellen was three the family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa which Ellen remembers as a “wonderful little town.” She recalls, “I went to a little Christian school from kindergarten until fifth grade and then my mom homeschooled me from sixth grade to tenth grade, and then I actually went to a wonderful public school in eleventh and twelfth grade. Mom realized that high school math and science were not really her forte, so she said ‘you’re going back to school.’ So, back to school I went. And I’m so glad that I did because I had such wonderful opportunities in the fine arts in that school, and really, one of my teachers, my AP U.S. history and AP economics teacher at that high school, put me on the trajectory that has led me to where I am today.”

The teacher was a Dr. McMann, who had a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, and who taught AP U.S. history and AP econ at George Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. “He could have been anywhere doing anything, and he chose to come back to his hometown and teach in a public school because he loved it and he loved education. I’ve always loved the social sciences, whether that is history, economics, political science, and so, he was hands down my favorite teacher.”

Weaver followed the family tradition of attending Bob Jones University. Her parents returned to Greenville a few years later. Upon graduating from college, Weaver went to Washington, D.C. and went to work for then-Rep. Jim DeMint from South Carolina, who was elected to the Senate a few years later. Weaver worked for DeMint in Washington for seven years and then returned to South Carolina, where she served as his state director. When DeMint retired from the Senate, Weaver decided to do something new, and in 2013, the former Senator helped her launch Palmetto Promise Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting “a free and flourishing South Carolina, where every individual has the opportunity to reach their full, God-given potential.”

A third-generation graduate of Bob Jones University, Weaver worked for former Senator Jim DeMint in Washington, D.C., and South Carolina. When DeMint retired from the Senate, Weaver founded the Palmetto Institute.

“It’s a state-based think tank,” Weaver explained. “We focused on a lot of different issues that would promote a free and flourishing South Carolina, but education was always my ‘heart’ issue and the issue that I was most passionate about. We have too many students who are being failed here in South Carolina, who are not getting the education that they need, and my passion is to change that.” Weaver began to think about running for the office of Superintendent of Education. “It seems like we just kept having the same conversations over and over and over again,” Weaver recalls, “and we never really moved the needle on what matters most, which is student performance. And so, I said, ‘I can sit back and complain about the issue, or I can put myself out there and throw my name in the hat.’”

Weaver was endorsed by Senator Tim Scott; former Governor, UN Ambassador, and now presidential candidate Nikki Haley; and of course former Senator Jim DeMint. Weaver had established a reputation as a strong education advocate on the SC Education Oversight Committee, a nonpartisan collection of appointees charged with improving education, and she proved a prodigious fundraiser. 

But her challengers raised a thorny issue: the state of South Carolina requires that whoever holds the position of education superintendent have a master’s degree. Weaver worked and obtained the degree online at her alma mater, Bob Jones University, in record time. Her opponents cried foul. Weaver turned the controversy to her advantage, emphasizing the value and flexibility provided by online degrees.

“Online degrees are, in many ways, I think the wave of the future, especially for busy professionals who don’t have time to quit their job and go back to school full-time,” she tells IWF. “So, for about six months I worked dawn to dusk, I got up at five o’clock every morning, and I was going to bed around 11:30 or 12 every night to do everything that I had to do to work a job, to run a campaign, and to do the work that was required of me in this online master’s degree. But I did every stitch of work that was required and I am so honestly thankful for the opportunity that I had to do it, because it made me prove my mettle. I told folks on the campaign trail, ‘This is a down payment on how hard I am willing to work to get a job done that I am given to do. This is an illustration of what I will do every day as your superintendent. I will give it 150 percent of my best effort.’ I’m incredibly proud of the degree. I’m actually sitting here looking at it on my office wall right now.”

When it comes to education, Weaver has practiced in her own life what she preaches in the public sphere—and as a result, more children in South Carolina will have the opportunity to gain basic literacy, and perhaps, become youthful bookworms—just like Ellen Weaver was before she embarked on her career of public service.