COLUMBIA, SC — More technology in the classroom and support for teachers, as well as a greater focus on literacy and “poorer school districts” will top Gov. Nikki Haley’s long-anticipated plan for improving S.C. public schools.
The first-term Lexington Republican shared those priorities Friday in an interview with The State but withheld specific details, including her plan for paying for the reform proposal, which she will announce this week.
Some of Haley’s proposals will be included in her annual state budget recommendation, also to be released this month, the governor said.
“That’s the most important part – how to fund (the education system) and how to maintain it,” Haley said, adding her plan will focus first on uplifting “poorer school districts.”
Haley, who grew up attending a “brick box” school in rural Bamberg County, said the current system of public education, which “educates children based on where they live,” is “immoral.”
In large part, S.C. schools depend on taxes that can be levied on local property, a system that favors affluent school districts over rural, less developed areas.
“We’ve got certain areas that are challenged, and we’ve got certain areas that are thriving, and all areas deserve to be thriving,” Haley said.
Haley also said Friday that promoting reading in schools will play a major part in her plan. But she stopped short of saying whether she would back a popular Senate bill that would mandate a statewide focus on reading in public schools.
That bill would require struggling third-grade readers to repeat a year of reading-intensive schooling, aimed at getting them reading on grade level. Supporters say it would avoid “social” promotions and improve students’ chances for academic success.
Year of input, business approach
Haley said she hopes to lay out the first steps to improving the state’s education system over the next eight to 10 years, drawing on thoughts from lawmakers, teachers, principals, school administrators, business and industry representatives, and deans of education programs at South Carolina’s colleges and universities.
Those stakeholders gave Haley their thoughts in private meetings that started last January, when the governor said she would introduce an education reform proposal.
Some specific recommendations that stakeholders made to Haley included:
• Spending as much as $90 million over three years to ensure every S.C. school has wireless internet access
• Making public education funding more equitable by reforming the current funding model, which combines federal, state and local property tax dollars but leads to inequality in school district funding
• Increasing the salary of entry-level school teachers to $40,000 a year, up from less than $30,000 in some districts
• Improving recruitment and retention of talented teachers and school administrators
• Correcting what some see as a lack of leadership at the state level in offering professional development for educators
• Appropriating state money to pay for teacher training in reading, technology and statewide initiatives, such as changing education standards
Paying for education reforms
Haley stressed that getting schools the resources they need requires money.
“You’ve got to pay for students to have resources,” she said, adding teachers and administrators also must have resources to meet goals required of them.
But Haley provided few details on how much money her proposal will bring to public education, saying only it would address funding and “revamp the way we do education.”
Haley’s office said raising taxes will not be necessary if existing money is spent in the right way.
But a reform proposal that depends on moving existing education dollars around worries some.
Jackie Hicks, president of the S.C. Education Association, said she recommended to Haley raising salaries for starting teachers to $40,000 to improve teacher recruitment and retention in struggling school districts. Hicks also told Haley the state should pay for some professional development for teachers. But Hicks left her meeting with the governor thinking new revenues are off the table.
“What are we going to have to shuffle here?” she asked. “We’ve already given enough as far as educators are concerned.”
Big ticket for technology
Some initiatives will be costly if Haley moves forward with them.
Improved technology could be “the great equalizer” in Haley’s plan, said Melanie Barton, executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee.
The Oversight Committee recently recommended the state spend $30 million this year to move toward having wireless access in every public-school classroom. The total cost of expanding wireless access to all the state’s public schools would be about $97 million, according to a recent estimate, Barton said.
Barton said she also recommended that Haley look at ways to help school districts give every student a computer or wireless device. One-to-one computing increasingly is a goal of school districts, especially as classroom instruction and testing move online.
Districts vary widely on their access to technology, Barton said. Wealthier school districts have moved ahead with buying technology for their students, while others lack computers and sufficient internet access.
Haley says it is unfair that some students have access to technology and others do not.
“We can’t just allow wealthier school districts to have that right,” Haley said. “What I am bringing to the table is I’m a governor who knows what it’s like to live in a rural area, to go to school in a brick box.”
Wanted: professional development
In their talks, teachers also stressed the need for additional training, Haley said.
“They do want the technology in the classroom, but, too, they were practical enough to say that technology is only as good as if (they are) trained on it,” Haley told The State in September.
Who will pay for teacher training has been an issue in the debate over the Senate reading bill, which would hold back struggling third-grade readers for a year of reading-intensive learning before advancing to fourth grade.
Teacher advocates have argued the state should foot the bill for the additional literacy training that teachers will need to make the program a success.
“You can’t just say you’re going to hold children back and not give teachers professional development that they need,” said Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators.
Fixing public education funding
While Haley noted inequities in education funding, it is unclear whether her plans will address the complex mix of state, federal and local tax dollars that fund schools now – long a point of debate and criticism by education leaders in the state.
A lawsuit lingering in the state Supreme Court accuses the state of not providing enough money to rural school districts.
Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association, and Spearman, with the school administrators, both said they urged Haley to address what they see as an outdated funding system.
Whatever Haley proposes, the public should not expect an all-encompassing piece of legislation next week, when Haley unveils her education proposal.
Haley has said there is no “silver bullet” to solve the state’s education issues.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Haley said in September. “I don’t think that it’s going to sail through. But I do think that enough thought and time will have been put into it that people will realize that this is something we’re invested in.”
On Friday, Haley said she is approaching education like she did the state’s economy, the primary focus of her first three years in office.
“We have to change our tone in education, support our teachers in a way we never have, support children in a way we never have,” she said. “In South Carolina, we just never have really pushed for it.”
Other education proposals
Other S.C. education proposals currently before the S.C. House or state Senate
S. 516 – The S.C. Read to Succeed Act would require struggling readers to repeat third grade to undergo a year of reading-intensive instruction. Sponsor: State Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee
H. 4407 – The S.C. Jobs, Education and Tax Act would change the way that school districts tax local properties for operating expenses, establishing a set rate for millage, used to calculate the percent of property value that an owner pays taxes on. The bill would funnel all education dollars into a single fund and use a revised formula to distribute that money to districts across the state on a per-student basis. Sponsor: State Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester
H. 3919 – Would allow seniors who have earned 24 course credits to receive a high school diploma regardless of how they perform on the high-school exit exam. Sponsor: House Education Committee chairman Phil Owens, R-Pickens
H. 3853 – Would set more specific standards for charter schools and how failing charters can be closed. Sponsor: Rep. Owens
S. 313 – Would create a statewide open-enrollment program, allowing students to apply to go to schools in districts other than where they live without paying tuition. Sponsor: State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York
S. 300/H. 3943 – Would void the state’s adoption of Common Core education standards and ban the state Department of Education from enacting them. Sponsors: State Sen. Larry Grooms and state Rep. Samuel Rivers, both Berkeley Republicans
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