State Politics

SC leaders say they want to fix schools. But they are missing key reforms, critics say

Here’s what superintendent Spearman likes about SC education bill

South Carolina education superintendent Molly Spearman, along with Gov. Henry McMaster and house speaker Jay Lucas met in a unified front to pass an education bill.
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South Carolina education superintendent Molly Spearman, along with Gov. Henry McMaster and house speaker Jay Lucas met in a unified front to pass an education bill.

State House leaders pitched 2019 as the year of education reform in the face of a growing teacher shortage and protests from educators demanding higher pay and more respect.

S.C. House leaders rallied behind an 84-page proposal, touting it as the state’s most ambitious effort to improve schools in 35 years — since Democratic Gov. Dick Riley successfully pushed a tax increase in 1984 to raise money for teachers and schools. But that bill is effectively dead for the year, after it passed the House and has stalled in the Senate.

When the legislative session ends next month, state lawmakers will have made good on at least one pledge to the state’s schools.

This year, lawmakers are expected to spend $159 million to give all teachers at least a 4% raise and to boost starting pay for teachers to $35,000 in an effort to keep teachers in the classroom. They may also spend $115 million to help poor school districts that need facility upgrades and suspend three many standardized tests required by the state.

But time is running out to do much more.

Lawmakers head home from Columbia in three weeks. And while senators have been debating their own education proposals, they are about to pivot to a heavy debate over another major state challenge: deciding the future of scandal- and debt-ridden Santee Cooper, a state-owned power company.

In a twist, though, some education advocates who want big changes are OK with inaction this year. They say the swiftly written and adopted House bill — whose proposals include raises for first-year teachers, a guaranteed 30-minute planning period and the elimination of some standardized tests — is flawed.

One huge omission, according to teachers? No one asked them for input before the bill was filed.

“Teachers are still upset that this huge piece of education reform legislation was started without teacher input,” said Kathy Maness, who leads the state’s largest teachers group, the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “I don’t blame them.”

The bill also includes provisions senators already rejected: yet another committee to study the state’s education system and a “Students Bill of Rights” — two examples of proposals senators found either redundant or meaningless, amounting to little more than “feel good language.”

Critics of this year’s education debate also say lawmakers have overlooked the systemic problems that have created obstacles to success for some of the state’s public schools for decades, including inadequate funding and a shortage of high-quality teachers. Some of those challenges were outlined in 2014 by the S.C. Supreme Court, when it found the state has failed to deliver even a “minimally adequate” education to all S.C. students, violating its constitutional duty.

School districts also argue that lawmakers are failing to address a controversial 2006 law that cut property taxes that fund schools on homeowners, including those whose children go to those schools. That law pushed the tax burden onto businesses and second homes, making it harder for schools in economically depressed areas and heavy-residential districts to pay for education.

Proposals being considered now don’t reduce large class sizes — which teachers blame for contributing to unmanageable work loads, less personalized instruction for students and children falling through the cracks. Teachers also say lawmakers could require districts to give them more time to do their jobs, cutting time-consuming tests and training and other mandates heaped upon them.

Educators have lamented that to fix the state’s public schools, lawmakers should start by paying teachers more to help shore up classroom vacancies. And despite the Legislature’s efforts in the budget to give every teacher a raise, teachers say that is not enough.

Further, critics say the state has no business debating reform until it confronts first a funding formula used to determine how much of one major pot of money to divvy out to each school district that hasn’t been overhauled in years.

“That’s just hilarious that you could think about education reform without addressing funding,” said state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, a former educator, who has openly resisted the current legislation and vowed to filibuster it when it hits the Senate floor for a vote.

“You’ve got a General Assembly that wants to throw away a bucket because they say it leaks, and we haven’t filled the bucket up one time in 11 years. So you don’t know if it leaks.”

Wanted: Ideas for fixing school spending

Costing the state more than $3 billion a year, funding public schools is “the biggest responsibility of the state,” said former Gov. Riley.

Yet every year since Great Recession, state lawmakers have failed to send school districts the amount of money state law says they need to educate students every year, falling short by about $533 a student.

Lawmakers say the formula is outdated and doesn’t account for federal, local money and other state dollars districts receive. But critics say poor, rural school districts sorely need those extra dollars, which largely go to pay teacher salaries, a point education advocates have long argued and the S.C. Supreme Court echoed five years ago.

The state’s 1977-era calculation to fund schools is a “fractured formula,” then-state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in the court’s 2014 ruling after several of the state’s poorest, rural schools sued the state two decades earlier demanding the state fix their schools. Toal added that the state’s funding formula ignored the needs of the state’s poorest districts.

The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case in 2017, saying S.C. lawmakers had shown “good faith” effort to respond to problems plaguing failing public schools. The court ruling was a disappointment for districts and educators alike.

“If nothing else, the lawsuit had brought to light what before that time had been in the darkness,” Carl Epps, the school districts’ attorney, told The State at the time. “There is no way in the world leaders can say they don’t know about the problem and that it’s not their obligation to fix it.”

Lawmakers have long talked about the need to address the way schools are funded, but they’ve offered no proposals yet.

Instead, lawmakers have asked the state office that analyzes the impacts of policy to come up with some ideas for a new way to distribute state money to schools. The governor and lawmakers want to see that report by May 9.

“Looking back, it would have been helpful if that effort had started earlier,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who sits on the Senate’s education and budget committees. “But, you take opportunities when they present themselves, and the opportunity presented itself this year to try to make a change and we should do that and we should build on that next year to complete the job.”

No fix in sight for SC tax ‘disaster’

School leaders also blame a 2006 state tax law for hurting schools.

That law, called Act 388, shifted the property tax burden of paying for schools off of owner-occupied homes and onto small businesses and second homes. The tax change disadvantaged areas with a high concentration of residential neighborhoods and rural areas with depressed or shrinking economies, making it more difficult for them to spread the burden of paying for schools across more taxpayers.

“It was the wrong idea at the wrong time,” said Scott Price, head of the state’s School Boards Association, who added the change has been a “disaster” for the state. “It’s put a significant amount of pressure on local businesses to pay for schools. It’s injuring the good relations that schools and businesses have had over the past.”

Legislators have flirted with the idea to phase out or completely scrap Act 388, a growing debate as the state’s Chamber of Commerce pushes lawmakers to take up tax reform. But they’ve taken no meaningful steps toward doing so.

The problem they face is, in part, a political one.

They cut taxes on S.C. residential homeowners. Lawmakers who go back on that deal — or raise taxes at all — could expect backlash from low-tax voters at the polls.

“Act 388 was the worst piece of legislation ever passed by this General Assembly, in my opinion,” said state Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, who heads the chamber’s latest tax-policy committee. “The reality of dealing with public policy sometimes is you never live in a perfect world. I’ve always said if we want to talk about funding education right, ... if you want to talk about any core function of government you’ve got to start with the right tax policy and we don’t have that.”

Some state leaders are holding out hope for tackling tax reform.

But next year, when every S.C. lawmaker faces re-election, the changes are slim.

“I am idealistic,” said the No. 2 Republican in the House, Rep. Tommy Pope of York. “But I’m not naive.”

Helping teachers in the classroom

When S.C. teachers first saw lawmakers’ comprehensive proposal to overhaul K-12 schools, they noticed something missing: There was nothing to address classroom sizes and flexibility for teachers.

“We were shocked to say the least,” said Ridge View High School teacher Nicole Walker, who sits on the board for upstart teachers group, SCforED. “We’d been told for so long by members of the Legislature that teachers didn’t reach out enough, ... that if we opened up dialogue and discussed issues, we’d see how willing they are to work with us. When we saw the bill, that clearly was not true.”

South Carolina’s public-school teachers have grown more vocal over the last year about the negative effects of unmanageable classroom sizes and marathon schedules that leave teachers with little time to eat lunch or use the restroom.

The problems are nothing new.

A decade ago, the Legislature allowed school districts to ignore caps on class sizes as the state reeled financially after the Great Recession. Now, workload challenges and more are driving teachers out of the classroom causing a shortage that is worsening in the state, particularly in the state’s rural districts.

At hearings earlier this year, teachers urged lawmakers to control work loads and class sizes, saying smaller groups of students would give them more one-on-one time with students to help them succeed.

Despite those concerns, the proposal did not explicitly address classroom sizes.

“We’ve been telling our schools that for 11 years, we don’t have the money to enforce class size caps,” Sen. Fanning said during the Senate’s budget debate Wednesday. “I know 11 years doesn’t seem a lot to us in this body, ... (but) we are damaging our kids. We’re endangering our kids by putting them in overcrowded classrooms.”

But teachers may get a guaranteed break of 30 minutes time some say they need to work on lesson plans, or each lunch or use the restroom.

“Obviously more time will always help, but even knowing we would be able to have a few minutes to run copies, check email, wolf down some lunch or take a bathroom break is wonderful because currently not many of us are guaranteed those things,” Walker said. “Many days I don’t realize until 3 p.m. I’ve never used the bathroom or eaten. You’re so busy you just don’t even think of it.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
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