In one of his rare endorsements of a political candidate, former President George H.W. Bush has come out strongly for Republican Sally Atwater — widow of campaign strategist Lee Atwater — who is vying for the nomination as superintendent of education in South Carolina.
Atwater is a special-needs teacher and former official in the administration of George W. Bush. Her late husband managed the elder Bush's winning presidential campaign in 1988 and served as Republican national chairman until his death in 1991.
In a statement exclusive to Newsmax, the 89-year-old Bush wrote: "I was pleased to learn Sally is running for this critically important office in South Carolina after dedicating so much of her life as a teacher to understanding and meeting the needs of students and parents alike.
"That real-life experience working where 'the rubber meets the road' — combined with Sally's commitment to public service — will serve all stakeholders of South Carolina's education system well. Barbara and I endorse and commend her to one and all."
Although it is no surprise to find the 41st president blessing old friends who seek office, the statement was a bit of a surprise because Bush rarely gives endorsements to candidates outside his own family — much less those involved in an eight-candidate GOP primary.
But his endorsement has focused fresh attention on both the race for superintendent and Sally Atwater.
Along with raising her three daughters after Lee's sudden death at age 40, the Winthrop Teacher's College (now Winthrop University) graduate has taught elementary school, adult education, and special-needs children.
"I'm a real teacher, day and night," Atwater told Newsmax.
When Dr. Mick Zais decided not to run for re-election as superintendent of education, Sally Atwater decided to seek the office.
"It was Gov. Nikki Haley's reform initiative for education that really inspired me to run," she said. "This measure means everything to the children here in South Carolina. I want to help her implement it."
Known as the K-12 Education Reform initiative, the proposal by the Republican governor includes a fresh formula for school funding, greater emphasis on technology, meeting reading challenges by the third grade, and more education options for South Carolina — most significantly, an expansion of charter schools.
It is the program's emphasis on technology that particularly moved candidate Atwater. Pointing to her days teaching in a rural school, she recalled, "It took me six months to get one computer for my classroom. Today, some schools have individual iPads. Something has to be done."
As it is in races for similar offices dealing with education nationwide, the "Common Core" educational standards for public schools have surfaced in the Palmetto State campaign.
Atwater was harshly critical of the standards.
"It's being discussed within the Legislature and it's very much a case of encroachment from Washington, just like Obamacare," Atwater said. "One set of standards does not fit all students, especially some of the students I worked with."
As an example, she cited the story of a Dillon, S.C., student who taught himself calculus because his high school did not offer the subject. The student was Ben Bernanke, until recently chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
"Sally Atwater is the real deal — a movement conservative, with years and years of experience teaching special needs kids in rural areas of South Carolina," said Van Hipp, former state GOP chairman of South Carolina.
"That, combined with her experience on the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee and as the executive director of the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities at the Department of Health and Human Services, is experience that no one else can touch," Hipp told Newsmax. "She will be the best superintendent of education that South Carolina has ever had."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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