In 1990 Nielsen was elected the South Carolina superintendent of education on the Republican ticket, the first woman to hold that position and the second woman in the state to be elected as a constitutional officer.
State superintendent of education. Nielsen was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 2, 1942, the daughter of Marvin and Adele Stock. She married Dr. Dennis J. Nielsen and had two daughters. She earned an Ed.D. from the University of Louisville in 1983 and served as a teacher, curriculum specialist, and administrator in the Jefferson County / Louisville City Public Schools from 1964 to 1980. From 1984 to 1989 she was a curriculum specialist and director of business-community partnerships in the Beaufort County Schools.
In 1990 Nielsen was elected the South Carolina superintendent of education on the Republican ticket, the first woman to hold that position and the second woman in the state to be elected as a constitutional officer. She was reelected by a wide margin in 1994 but chose not to run for a third term in 1998. She was appointed a Senior Fellow at the Clemson University Strom Thurmond Institute in 1999 and made her home in Hilton Head. During her years as superintendent, she was the chief executive officer for the State Department of Education with more than seven hundred employees and a budget of more than $2 billion serving more than twelve hundred schools in the state. Her goals were to make South Carolina a leader in educational reform and to encourage excellence for all students.
Nielsen’s accomplishments included the development of curriculum frameworks for all subjects and grades and new performance-based assessments for statewide tests. She oversaw the introduction of computer technology and access to the Internet in all schools, the implementation of full-day kindergarten for all children, the introduction of prekindergarten for at-risk three- and four-year-old children, and the targeting of additional financial and professional assistance to low-performing school districts. In administrative areas, Nielsen reorganized the Department of Education to reduce the levels of management. Other contributions were in the fields of community outreach, improving teachers’ professional skills, establishing tax-supported charter schools, improving math and science skills, and developing a model National School to Work program.
Nielsen tried to give more authority to local schools by reducing state regulations and paperwork. She frequently pointed to progress and achievements in the schools while recognizing that the state faced serious educational challenges. During her eight years as superintendent, South Carolina received several national honors for rate of improvement in such areas as technology, arts education, the eight National Education Goals, teacher quality, and financial accountability for school expenditures. In announcing her decision not to run for reelection in 1998, she stated, “We have fundamentally overhauled the system at the state level, and the pieces are now in place. The next frontier is at the local level, and I can help more by working from outside the system rather than inside.” Nielsen considered herself an agent of change. Supporters and critics agreed that she worked vigorously to accomplish her goals, some of which remained controversial throughout her terms of office, and that she helped bring national recognition to the state for playing a leadership role in several areas of educational reform.