THE TASK FORCE designing a response to the Supreme Court order to provide a decent education to even the poorest children in South Carolina didn’t set out to find a silver bullet. As the group explained in its report, released last month, our state and others have believed for too long “that there is a definitive solution to a complex and ongoing problem.”
What the House’s Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force found was a smart set of principles and recommendations the state can adopt to give children in poor school districts the same opportunities as children in wealthier districts to receive the education they need to lead productive lives:
▪ Good teachers, principals and superintendents make the difference between poor districts that do a good job and those that don’t. Use state resources to train, attract and retain them. Focus on teaching them how to teach poor children. Make it more difficult to get into teacher-education programs and easier for schools to get rid of teachers who aren’t up to the job.
▪ Children need clear goals that are designed to make sure they graduate from high school ready to get a job or continue their education. Spell out those goals — be able to read by the end of third grade, be college- or career-ready by the end of 12th grade, for instance — and change curriculums as necessary to keep students on track to meet them.
▪ Poor districts aren’t offering as large a variety of courses or as many higher-level courses as better-off districts. Provide more online courses, duel-enrollment courses with technical colleges and opportunities for students to learn about career options.
▪ Poor districts tend to have high overhead and use their resources less effectively than they should. Encourage them to merge or at least share resources, and provide experts and other assistance to help them make these changes. Require poor districts to undergo “efficiency and effectiveness” studies that the Legislature can use to increase their funding or “direct the district toward greater efficiencies.”
▪ Poor children start school years behind better-off children, and they lose more ground over vacation. Provide better after-school and summer-school programs to help make up that deficit.
▪ Poor districts often have woefully inadequate facilities, because they lack the property tax base to build new ones. Provide low-interest infrastructure loans.
▪ Long commutes take a toll on children, reducing their ability to focus. Reduce the time kids spend on school buses, with smaller buses and smarter routes.
▪ How much children can learn is largely determined during the first critical years of their lives. Make sure early childhood education is about stimulating young brains, and countering the effects of extreme poverty, not just providing child care.
The report is not perfect. Although it talks a great deal about “accountability” and “encouraging” districts and schools to improve, it is short on consequences for those that fail. And it’s largely silent on how much the state should spend, instead deferring to a host of studies and assessments and, mostly, the Legislature’s will. That might be a prudent nod to reality, but it means the report will not serve as a measuring stick for funding. Nor will it serve as a measuring stick in terms of how long it takes the Legislature to act; the task force refused to include a timeline for the most important recommendations.
Still, this is a valuable report, and the members of the task force are to be commended for their work. Particularly impressive was how well legislators from both political parties and representatives of the 36 school districts whose lawsuit resulted in the Supreme Court order worked together, in the end approving the report unanimously.
House Speaker Jay Lucas also should be commended for his extraordinary approach to the court’s order, inviting the plaintiffs in the Abbeville v. South Carolina lawsuit to help House members design a framework for reform.
Now the hard work begins: turning this report into legislation, and turning that legislation into law.
Legislators have a lot on their plate this year, even if you ignore all the important things that they have no intention of doing and just consider the things they are interested in doing. And no one can realistically expect the Legislature to adopt the task force’s recommendations verbatim — much less to pass and fund a complete fix for our poor, rural school districts in one year. Our failure to provide a decent education to the children in these districts was generations in the making.
But we can, and should, expect lawmakers to get started, with concrete action in this session; if they don’t like the ideas in this report, they need to explain why — and propose something better.
Nothing the Legislature does has ever been more important than providing for the education of the next generation. Lawmakers have finally been forced to confront the inadequacy of their efforts to date, and they have been given realistic ways to begin remedying our shortcomings. They must do so.