Haley’s education plan means $17 million more for 3 Midlands counties

02/15/2014 7:14 PM

02/15/2014 7:35 PM

Richland County’s two public school districts would get $8 million more in state money next school year if lawmakers approve Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposed education spending plan. Lexington’s five districts would get an additional $8 million and Kershaw would see a $1.3 million boost.

Most of the roughly $175 million in new spending Haley is proposing would increase funding for the state’s 84 school districts – expanding technology, boosting reading instruction and paying for other expenses, including salaries for some teachers.

Of the $17 million flowing to eight districts in the three Midlands counties, $3.5 million would pay for 36 elementary school reading coaches and cover half the cost of 41 more reading teachers. Another $4.5 million would improve Internet access and buy computing devices.

Education education leaders have questions about how far Haley’s spending plan will go toward addressing inequities in school spending statewide. But they generally have applauded her plan for moving in that direction.

Emphasizing technology and reading, as Haley proposes, are two keys to improving the state’s public schools and its economy, they say.

“When she talks about the connection between education and economic development, she’s saying something that the superintendents have been saying a lot over the last few years,” said Kershaw superintendent Frank Morgan.

Percy Mack, Richland 1 superintendent, said he would welcome additional money for technology and reading coaches, and hopes that state support would continue.

An ongoing debate

Haley spent last year consulting with education stakeholders about how to improve the state’s schools.

The first-term Republican governor announced her proposal last month, just as her re-election campaign started to heat up against her likely Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden. Sheheen also has made improving education central to his campaign, focusing on proposals to expand early childhood education and increase teacher pay.

Haley’s proposal comes after years of debate over inequities in the way the state pays for public education, highlighted by a decades-old school equity lawsuit still pending before the S.C. Supreme Court.

Some involved in that debate, including Republican state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, say that more money does not necessarily lead to better-performing schools. Others note the state has failed to fund public education at levels recommended by state law for years. It would take about $500 million in new spending to make up that difference.

Haley says the state’s growing revenues and healthy reserves will pay for her proposal without a tax increase. She has described her plan as the first step in what must be a multiyear commitment by the General Assembly to improve public education.

The plan, her spokesman Doug Mayer said, “will provide our state with a fairer and simpler formula while making major investments in reading initiatives and technology – the tools and support students need in order to succeed.”

But some say the way that Haley’s plan proposes to revise the state’s decades-old education funding formula, widely considered outdated, may not address the reasons that school funding varies so much from district to district.

“While it provides additional funding for students in poverty, the problem is they do nothing to address the foundation of why it’s broken in the first place,” said Debbie Elmore, a spokeswoman for the S.C. School Boards Association.

Those funding inequities include changes in the tax code that shifted the burden of paying for schools from residential properties to businesses, making it easier for districts flush with industry and commerce to raise money locally, Elmore said.

Giving Haley credit for trying, however, Elmore and others say the funding issue is complex. They say finding a solution is an enormous challenge because of the complex hodgepodge of federal, state and local money that flows to school districts, leading to vastly different funding levels per student.

Winners and losers

If approved, Haley’s plan would change the way the state distributes public education money, funneling more dollars to students who cost more to educate: high-poverty and gifted students, non-English speakers and struggling readers.

In theory, school districts with less ability to raise local taxes for schools would get more state money.

The districts standing to gain the most and least under Haley’s plan, relative to the size of their budgets, are York 2 in Clover and Florence 3.

York 2 would receive less than $500,000 in new money toward the $94 million it now raises for schools – less than half a percent increase. In part, that’s because the district has one of the lowest poverty rates in the state. About 45 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches or Medicaid, two indicators of poverty.

York 2 also has a strong tax base, fueled by a nuclear reactor that pays for more than half its income.

In contrast, Florence 3, where 94 percent of students are impoverished, would see the greatest increase in state money – $2.2 million added to its $34 million schools income, an increase of more than 6 percent. More than half of the district’s annual income now comes from the state.

So where does that leave the districts in per-student funding?

York 2, which had $14,309 a student to spend this year, would receive about $62 per student more in new money under Haley’s plan. In contrast, Florence 3, with $9,426 to spend now, would receive about $532 per student more.

The Midlands’ eight districts – which range in size from 1,800 students to more than 26,000 – spend from $10,000 to nearly $16,000 per student, according to this year’s estimates.

Lexington 4 would get the most new money per student under Haley’s plan: about $293 a student, or $902,205 in new money.

Lexington 2 would get an added $238 per student, followed by Richland 1 at $203.

Lexington-Richland 5, the only Midlands district with a poverty rate below 50 percent, would get the smallest increase in state support, roughly $66 per student more.

Poverty, struggling readers

Education advocates have praised Haley’s plan for technology and reading. Last year, they pushed the importance of access to technology and support for reading, as the state’s literacy rates stagger and districts try to give every student a computer or tablet.

Under the governor’s proposal, money for reading coaches and technology would be distributed based on a school district’s poverty and performance on reading tests.

Haley’s plan would spend about $29.3 million to increase the amount of technology money for school districts. Districts with at least 85 percent of their students living in poverty would receive $70 for every student, and those with 75 percent poverty or less would receive $35 for every student. Those in between would receive $50 for every student.

Haley’s plan also would spend $29.5 million to pay for elementary school reading coaches.

Three hundred S.C. elementary schools, where at least 20 percent of students score poorly in reading, would get almost $63,000 each to cover the cost of hiring a full-time reading coach. The state’s remaining 340 elementary schools would receive half that amount if they agree to match the state money.

Finding the money

Haley hopes the new state money would put a reading coach in every elementary school.

In Richland 1, which already has reading coaches, getting the extra state support would free up money the district now spends on reading coaches for other needs, said superintendent Mack.

But Kershaw schools might not be able to meet the matching requirement without cutting other programs, Donnie Wilson, the district’s chief financial officer, and two other members of the S.C. Association of School Business Officials said in an analysis of Haley’s proposal.

Kershaw would get three fully funded reading coaches but would have to come up with matching dollars to pay for eight additional coaches.

That would be difficult, Wilson said in the analysis, because Kershaw County Council must approve tax increases for the school district. Over the last five years, the Kershaw school district has cut 60 teaching positions as it tried to cope with the impact of the Great Recession. To pay for the required matching spending, it likely would be forced to cut other programs.

Not a ‘silver bullet’

Haley’s focus on targeting dollars to the students who need added help makes sense, said Morgan, Kershaw’s superintendent.

But poverty does not always lead to low funding, he said.

“Some of the highest-poverty school districts in the state already spend a great deal of money per student,” Morgan said. “The formula would take that and increase it.”

The widest gap in per-student funding this year was between Allendale, which had almost $19,000 a student to spend, and Dillon 3, which had $7,700 per pupil to spend.

While 98 percent of Allendale’s students live in poverty – the highest rate in the state – Dillon’s poverty rate also is high. At 80 percent, it is 8 percentage points higher than the state average.

Even with the higher state spending that Haley proposes, that gap would remain.

But others say Haley’s proposal is a step in the right direction.

It addresses problems with the way state dollars are distributed to school districts – a step toward addressing the state’s education funding goals, said Melanie Barton, executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, which makes recommendations for ways to improve education.

If the General Assembly approves Haley’s funding model – which she took from the Oversight Committee’s research – the next step would be to look at how that money is collected, based on local property values, Barton said.

Haley has said her plan is no “silver bullet,” but the beginning of a multiyear commitment that will require a continuing commitment by the General Assembly to pay for technology and other needs.

For example, to give every classroom Internet access would cost about $97 million, according to an Oversight Committee study, about $70 million more than Haley proposes to spend.

The Oversight Committee has recommended spending $30 million for three years consecutively to meet that need.

“The more you focus on the individual needs of students, no matter where they live, you’ll start putting more equity into the system,” Barton said.

Gov. Nikki Haley is proposing about $175 million in new state spending. What it means for the Midlands:

SOURCES: Governor’s office, Education Oversight Committee and S.C. Budget and Control Board

Haley’s school plan

By the numbers:

$83 million – For school districts, distributed per student, with more going to districts that have more impoverished, gifted, non-English speaking or struggling students who cost more to educate

$29.5 million – To hire reading coaches in 300 elementary schools and provide matching money for the remaining 340 elementary schools.

$29.3 million – To improve bandwidth and wireless connectivity, and buy computing devices

$13.8 million – For the state’s Public Charter School District

$8 million – For digital instructional materials

$4.5 million – For summer reading camps

$4 million – For the state’s never-funded loan program for charter school facilities

$2 million – For the state’s private-school choice program for students with special needs

$750,000 – To hire 10 additional teachers through the S.C. Department of Education’s Virtual Schools Program

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