S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas said Thursday that he wants the General Assembly to make “substantial progress” on education issues this year.
The Darlington Republican said House members will introduce bills this month that include an education task force’s recommendations to improve K-12 public schools, especially in rural, impoverished communities.
The state budget also will address some of the goals of that task force, said Lucas and state Rep. Kenny Bingham, the Lexington Republican who chairs a House K-12 budget-writing panel.
Legislators and budget forecasters met with S.C. media Thursday to preview issues that will top the legislative agenda this year. Lawmakers return to Columbia Tuesday.
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Lucas’ education task force made dozens of recommendations, including spending more state money to educate impoverished students, re-evaluating and raising teacher salaries, helping schools get computer and internet technology, creating a loan program for rural districts that need financial help to build new schools, and spending more money to improve school transportation.
Lawmakers are weighing what proposals to tackle this year, as they decide how to spend more than $1 billion in additional money in the state budget that starts July 1.
Just maintaining the same level of services in the public schools will require more new spending due to growing enrollment and rising inflation, said Les Boles, the state budget director. Boles said it will cost $147 million in additional spending to keep pace with growth and inflation.
Bingham, who oversees a House K-12 budget-writing panel, said increasing education funding to address that growth would be the “minimum” that he is likely to recommend.
Bingham also said he would support creating a grant program for school districts that cannot afford to replace buildings on their own because their tax bases are weak.
State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman urged state senators Wednesday to consider giving grants — not loans — to those districts.
Accountability and consolidation “in certain small districts is going to be a must,” said Bingham, adding, “We cannot survive today in the way that we did 40, 50 years ago. We have to get our education system brought up to the 21st Century.”
Lawmakers also fielded questions about how swiftly they will move on new education proposals. The pressure is on.
The S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the state’s schools unconstitutionally fail to provide all students with a quality education.
The court gave the state until Feb. 1 to come up with legislative proposals to fix schools, but, subsequently, it dismissed that deadline, opposed by legislators.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said Thursday that response to the court’s deadline cast doubt on whether legislators will accomplish anything.
“At some point, we will study and study and study until we can't study anymore,” she said, adding education improvements must “be dovetailed with economic development,” encouraging industries to locate in impoverished areas.
However, Republican Bingham promised the House will pass a “major reform plan,” adding the governor, state schools chief and lawmakers all are working together. “I have ... better things to do than spend endless periods of time putting a report together that’s going to sit on the shelf.”
Paying for S.C. education
By the numbers:
More than $1 billion – Additional money the state will have to spend in its fiscal year that starts July 1
$147 million – Additional state money needed by K-12 schools to keep up with rising inflation and enrollment
$684 million – Additional money that the state should be spending on K-12 schools, accoridng to state law
SOURCE: S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office