ABOUT THIS SERIES: The State has asked the candidates for state education superintendent five questions about public education in the state. The answers appear in The State and at TheState.com over the next four days. Voters go to the polls June 8 to choose the Democratic and Republican nominee for the office.
Question: What is the No. 1 problem facing S.C.'s public schools?
FRANK HOLLEMAN, Greenville attorney
ANSWER: While we face a number of significant problems, our principal challenge is making high-quality public education South Carolina’s top priority. The Legislature must provide stable, adequate and equitable funding; business and industry must recognize quality public education as our No. 1 jobs and economic development strategy; community groups must treat our public schools as centers of community; parents must be involved in their children’s education; and students must take responsibility for their own learning. In other words, we all must take responsibility for high-quality – not minimally adequate – public education.
The state Superintendent must be a leading advocate for high quality public education. Legislators and other officeholders will put public education first only if we build the base of public support at the community level. I have spent years advocating for public education and taking action to support and improve it, as U.S. Deputy Secretary under former S.C. Governor and Secretary Dick Riley, as founding Vice Chair of the state First Steps Board, as Chair of Success by Six, as Chair of a community high school graduation initiative, as Chair of the Alliance for Quality Education, as United Way Chair, and as a volunteer for the Education Improvement Act. I come from the business and civic community and will work with community groups, business, elected officials, educators, and citizens to build strong public support for reforming and improving public education.
TOM THOMPSON, S.C. State University dean
ANSWER: In light of significant personnel layoffs and massive budget cuts, funding has to be the No. 1 problem in public schools today. The most reasonable and responsible solution to the problem lies with the work of the TRAC commission and its examination of possible tax reform measures that could significantly increase tax revenue for the state. Because of the amount of time that this approach is likely to take, more immediate measures will be necessary, like increasing flexibility in the use of state funds, restructuring of the school day and/or the school year, consolidation of schools, elimination of nonessential programs, and identification of temporary funding mechanisms.
GARY BURGESS, Former Anderson 4 superintendent
ANSWER: The No. 1 problem is the teacher’s inability to teach because of useless regulations, policies and procedures that interfere with the teaching-learning process. The public education system has been “gamed” against teachers, students, parents and the taxpayer. We use bogus information (tests that are not reliable or valid, polices that do not support learning, procedures that are harmful and practices which do not add value to the teaching-learning process) to judge students, teachers and schools. I will work to rid the state such practices. Teachers will be freed up to teach. Currently, teachers are forced to do work that harm the teaching-learning process. I will get rid of policies and procedures that attempt to “teacher proof” schools. It will be a priority that every child in elementary school is taught like she is going to college (reading, writing, and math at the highest levels).
ELIZABETH MOFFLY, Mount Pleasant business owner
ANSWER: Graduation rates! SC’s high school graduation rate, depending on who is reporting, is in a range of between only 61-74 percent. The present educational system is failing our children. That dropout rate failure has a huge impact on our young people’s quality of life and contributes heavily to increased welfare roles and crime incidents. Secondarily, states are ranked by their graduation rate, which has a major effect on economic development and attracting new business. A company and its employees considering relocation evaluate quality of education, largely based on the state’s graduation rate. Presently, S.C. is ranked near the bottom. Not enticing for new business. I will offer a vocational diploma in addition to the current college prep path, and I will increase the number of guidance counselors. The vocational diploma will use the existing Education Economic Development Act (EEDA) which supersedes the State Board of Education Diploma requirements for student-specific Individual Graduation Plans (IGP). Special needs students and those who complete their GED will be given a state diploma. This will provide more student choice and educational satisfaction – fewer dropouts.
Another initiative is to assure that teaching is age/grade-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate. This is an adjustment to the standards of learning. It means that children in kindergarten learn socialization and how to recognize letters/numbers, rather than perform at the 1st-grade level.
All children in K-3 must have all the remedial help they need. As they progress they must have a strong foundation in the basics– reading, writing and math.
BRENT NELSEN, Furman University professor
ANSWER: The specific answer is the unacceptably high dropout rate, but this costly legacy is a symptom of a bigger problem. In South Carolina we have relied on a failed, centralized bureaucratic approach to education, which no one owns. We have come to accept that despite some bright spots, South Carolina as a whole can’t compete. We cannot accept that. It’s time to take ownership of our schools, because our economic future and the quality of life for thousands of children are at stake. I am calling for us to reinvent our education partnership to make learning a top priority in South Carolina. Government can’t do it all. We can’t wait for better budgets. Let’s empower all parents with real choices: magnate schools, charter schools, virtual schools – an individualized, customized education to fit each child. Let’s empower teachers to be the creative, innovative professionals they long to be. A great teacher makes education work. We must deregulate the classroom. We must empower businesses, churches, civic groups and individuals to get involved and remake education into a primary South Carolina value.
If we do this, together we can see:
** Every parent with meaningful school choice, and every student able to pursue his or her passion.
** The number of drop-out factories cut in half and graduation rates up.
** 85% of our students reading at basic or above in 4th and 8th grades
** The SAT achievement gap narrowed and more college applications
We must act now! And take back our schools.
KELLY PAYNE, Dutch Fork High School teacher
ANSWER: The greatest problem is focus for the education leaders, legislature, and general public. Those in education and in the legislature focus too much on the bureaucracy and statistics and too little on what happens daily in the classroom. Only a portion of the $8.4 billion spent on public education in South Carolina last year was spent on what happens in the classroom. I support and will continue to support legislation that requires 70 percent of state expenditures on K-12 education go to classrooms. As Superintendent I would find ways to reduce the bloated bureaucracy. Not all of the non-instructional positions are providing benefits to the kids. In the legislature there has been constant talk about quality public education, yet those same legislators and governor enacted Act 388, which has created economic disaster in all of our schools. (As superintendent) I would lobby the legislature and the general public to create a stable source of funding for public education instead of catering to people who benefit most from Act 388. The kids aren’t benefiting. In order for this state and its people to grow and remain competitive with our rapidly changing world we need to believe in and focus on creating an education system that provides excellence in basic education, for example math and reading, and innovative education that prepares each student for post-high school or the workforce or military. As Superintendent of Education I would take that message daily to all corners of the state.
MICK ZAIS, Newberry College president
ANSWER: A plan based on fixing a current problem in our schools won’t lead to long-term success for all of South Carolina’s students. My mission as South Carolina state superintendent of education is for every one of our students, from their first day of school, to be prepared to graduate from high school and to maximize their success in the work force, military or higher education. Schools must be safe and orderly. For this to happen, teachers must be supported in maintaining discipline and order in the classrooms. Every student needs to read to succeed in high school and life, and aggressive implementation of reading instruction for struggling readers must be a priority. One size doesn’t fit all learners or teachers, so parental choice options must increase and teachers and principals should have choices in the educational communities they lead. Principals and teachers are most visibly accountable for their students’ achievement. They need to be given flexibility in designing the academic programs to best meet the needs of their students. Funding should be based on the students served, and every dollar that is spent must be accounted for and be directly connected to student learning. Teachers should be rewarded for exceptional academic gains for students.