S.C. lawmakers said Thursday they are unsure what changes will have to be made to the way the state pays for education.
Those changes could take more than a year to enact, one state senator said, and, a former state schools superintendent added, could force a rewrite of the state’s tax laws.
That uncertainty comes a day after a state Supreme Court ruling saying the state is not doing enough for students in poor school districts, a ruling expected to force the state to spend more on K-12 education.
It is too early to tell what impact that ruling will have on the state’s $7.5 billion-a-year general fund budget for next year, which lawmakers will begin assembling when they return to Columbia in January, senators say.
Other state spending priorities — including more money to fix the state’s crumbling roads and to hire more caseworkers for the embattled state Department of Social Services — will compete with calls to spend more on schools.
Legislators also will face the challenge of improving poor-performing schools while not hurting better school districts, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York.
“If you’ve got some good school districts and pockets of excellence, we don’t want to necessarily diminish those in an attempt to try to raise everyone (to) a common denominator,” said Hayes, who chairs a state Senate budget panel that oversees K-12 spending.
In its ruling, the high court did not say explicitly the state must spend more money on K-12 education or how much. Instead, it said the state must assess problems in the poor schools — from inferior teachers to too few buses to inefficient administrations — and propose solutions and a timetable to the court.
The General Assembly will meet with the poorer school districts to formulate a plan to present to the court, said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman.
Until a plan is developed, it is difficult to know what the added cost will be to the state budget, the Florence Republican added.
While it is only speculation at this point, the state’s costs for K-12 education probably will go up, Hayes said. “Some of our priorities will have to certainly go toward dealing with this issue.”
There also could be changes to the formulas that the state uses in deciding how much state money to give to individual school districts, he said.
The ruling calls for a massive rethinking of how South Carolina pays for schools that likely will not be completed in a single legislative session, said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.
Schools advocates have argued the General Assembly could start by ensuring that school districts get all the money that state law says they are entitled to.
For example, the state is paying school districts $2,120 for every student this fiscal year, $600 less than state law said they should receive.
Closing that gap would cost roughly $600 million, more than twice the $283 million in higher revenues that state economists estimate will be available to spend in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Fully funding that gap would be tough, said Leatherman, who chairs the Senate’s main budget-writing panel. To do so, other state needs — more money for roads or public safety, for example — would have to be cut, he said.
In his opinion dissenting from Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling, Associate Justice John Kittredge warned the General Assembly would have to make difficult decisions, choosing whether to spend money on schools or roads, police and Social Services.
“By boldly encroaching into the constitutional prerogative of the General Assembly in the funding and policy decisions regarding public education, the court’s overreach today has a corresponding negative impact on the General Assembly's ability to make policy and funding decisions in other areas,” Kittredge wrote.
While acknowledging “the Supreme Court decision has opened the discussion for additional (school) funding,” incoming Republican State Schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said, “We first need to make sure that every dollar is being used in an efficient and effective manner.”
Former Democratic superintendent of education Jim Rex said the Legislature needs to live up to its promises to S.C. schools, including higher funding.
“The Legislature should be held accountable to do what they said themselves was necessary to do to have a public school system that was credible,” Rex said.
Spending more on schools and roads will require reforming the state’s tax system, Rex said, recommending the state eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in exemptions to its sales taxes to raise revenue.