Bolton: If you can do it for Boeing ...

Associate EditorNovember 15, 2009 

WHILE THE positive things that have been written and said about the way S.C. lawmakers laid aside their differences and grievances - large and small - and banded together to land the Boeing Co. are well-deserved, it's time to ask the big question:

If you can do it for Boeing - if you can roll out the red carpet, if you can forgive millions in taxes, if you can put together a multimillion-dollar incentive package for a large, well-financed company from outside South Carolina - why can't you do it for the poor school districts struggling to educate this state's children, the human well from which Boeing and other companies need to draw employees if we're going to increase per capita income and lift the fortunes of our state?

When poor districts came to the state asking for money so they could give students the opportunity to get a high-quality education, the state chose to fight against its children rather than embrace them. Year after year, children in poor communities go to ill-equipped schools staffed by some of the least-experienced, worst-prepared teachers.

Lots of work went into the Boeing deal, and with good reason. Boeing's new 787 aircraft assembly line planned for North Charleston is expected to generate at least 3,800 jobs over a seven-year period. An arm of the Budget and Control Board says it will create a $10 billion economic impact during the next 15 years.

State officials privately crafted a $450 million incentive package to seal the deal. It's the largest incentive package South Carolina has ever offered; few who voted for it, let alone taxpayers who'll pay for it, know all the details. Lawmakers had to tinker with several state laws.

Reasonable people could argue that they acted hastily and aren't sure whether they gave away too much; they could argue the deal was far too secretive. But reasonable people also would have to acknowledge this was a deal that had to get done: Lawmakers knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal and jumped at the opportunity. They should feel good about what they did.

But ensuring that a child gets a good education is a once-in-a-lifetime deal as well. It's a deal we've been neglecting for generations. Yes, we've put significant focus on education and have made some admirable strides. But we've still got a long way to go.

It's not that lawmakers haven't tried. There's a special Senate committee, for example, that's been working for several years now to try to formulate a plan to fix our schools. All too often, though, such efforts fizzle out.

While our governor didn't get in the way of the Boeing deal, he has been a significant impediment to closing the deal for our kids. We've spent much of the past seven years fending off voucher advocates - well-funded by outside sources - rather than concentrating on improving our public schools, as we should have. The outsiders picked South Carolina largely due to the welcome mat Gov. Mark Sanford so willingly presented.

That doesn't let lawmakers off the hook. They can work around a governor any time they want to. What's it going take to get them as excited about our children and their future - the real keys to South Carolina's future?

I wonder, while we were courting Boeing, if we told executives how we treat our children? While they were going back and forth with union workers in Washington state and considering South Carolina, in part because we don't have such a strong labor presence, did we tell them how we were in court fighting against our children - some of their potential employees?

For 16 years, nearly three dozen poor, rural districts have contended that the state should provide extra money to improve the quality of education children in poverty receive. They argue their kids don't get the constitutionally guaranteed "minimally adequate" education that students in wealthier communities get.

Unfortunately, where you live in this state dictates the quality of education you're likely to receive. But lawmakers have the power to remedy that, just as they had the power to hook Boeing.

What will it take for lawmakers to summon the same political will, focus and urgency to act on students' behalf that they mustered for Boeing?

Truth is, lawmakers need to develop the will and find the common ground that was so apparent in the Boeing courtship for more than just schools and our children. There are so many other ways lawmakers could help this state's people if they would just decide that the well-being of the citizens of South Carolina ranks at least as high - higher actually, but at least as high would be an improvement - as the needs of a Boeing.

I'm ecstatic Boeing is coming, but we must take care of our own.

If lawmakers would lay aside their political and other hang-ups that only serve to gum up the good work government can do, they could accomplish so much.

If they wanted to, they could restructure state government in a way that it actually works for, instead of against, citizens. If the Employment Security Commission reported to someone accountable to voters, it would be less likely to overlook the need to change the law so federal aid wouldn't run out for South Carolinians who have been laid off. If the Department of Health and Environmental Control had to answer to the governor, someone who's going to hold its feet to the fire, it's not as likely to roll over for lawmakers looking to do a favor for a friend while overlooking years and years of complaints residents have about a tainted water system.

If they want to, lawmakers can raise the cigarette tax. They can sign off on a statewide 4K program to give our kids the early start they need toward a quality education. They can ban workplace smoking statewide.

The quick, efficient, no-squabbling way lawmakers handled the Boeing deal stripped away any excuses they have for failure. It reveals that they can get things done - if they want to.

They did it for Boeing. They can do it for South Carolina.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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