THE FIRST conversation I ever had with Vincent Sheheen was about his plan to overhaul the way we do taxes and the way we pay for public education in South Carolina. Actually, it wasn’t just his plan. It was a plan that the unlikely duo of the Kershaw Democrat and Charleston Republican Jim Merrill had developed as they prepared to enter the House as freshman lawmakers.
It had several moving parts that would change over the years as Mr. Sheheen worked with a series of Republican partners, but it was based on three fundamental assumptions: Tax policy is inextricably linked to public education policy, and vice versa; our tax system needs an overhaul instead of still more piecemeal changes; and we will never get that unless Republicans and Democrats work together.
The linchpin of their work-together was giving Republicans the property tax relief they wanted in return for giving Democrats the equity funding for poor districts that they wanted.
In so doing, they would give our state what it needed: a tax system that helps our economy rather than holding it back, and a school system that gives all children a chance to get a good education so they can become contributing members of our society rather than a drain on it.
The plan never got any traction in the House, though Mr. Sheheen worked diligently with first Mr. Merrill and then GOP Rep. Rick Quinn. When he was elected to the Senate, he teamed up with GOP Sen. Larry Grooms to produce the most detailed version of the plan, and they even got a vote on the Senate floor in 2006, which they nearly won.
Nearly, but not; instead, the Legislature passed a bill that was not comprehensive tax reform and did not improve the way we do taxes or the way we pay for public education. What the plan did was satisfy the loudest homeowners, who didn’t want to pay their share of taxes, thus not only making our tax system more disjointed and hurting our schools but undermining the basis for compromise.
So of course things got quiet on the comprehensive tax reform front. Oh, House Republicans made a run at it in 2012, and it looked for a while there like they might address some serious problems, but their plan ended up not dealing with them, and it wasn’t actually tax reform but rather more in a long, long series of tax cuts; the Senate wisely refused even to consider it.
So it was good to see that Mr. Sheheen hasn’t given up on his grand plan.
This month, he rolled out the education platform of his second campaign for governor. And it was a fine education platform, with the mixture of Democratic favorites and pragmatic not-so-favorites that we’ve come to expect from him: expanding 4K, reducing class sizes, expanding public-school choice, paying teachers more, easing the way for career-changers to become teachers.
But what was most interesting, and encouraging, and important was his proposal to exchange local school property taxes for a statewide property tax, which would be distributed based on a statewide formula rather than leaving the amount of money available to put good teachers in the classroom and current textbooks in students’ hands dependent on how wealthy a child’s neighbors happen to be.
Mr. Sheheen told The State’s Jamie Self that the biggest problems facing our state “are education and a broken tax system” and “I am forceful and passionate in my belief that the two are linked and we should reform them together.”
No, the tax swap isn’t comprehensive tax reform — although there’s no reason it couldn’t be incorporated into comprehensive tax reform. But it takes us back to the education strategy that drove Mr. Sheheen to the comprehensive reform proposals he kept working on and working on and working on: the understanding that the only way to get legislators who represent rich districts interested in helping poor districts is by linking the fates of all districts together.
As long as wealthier districts can raise their property taxes to pay for the things parents demand, legislators who represent those districts aren’t going to be especially worried about how the state treats the schools. But if those districts have to rely entirely on state funding — if their fate is linked to the fate of the Corridor of Shame schools — their legislators will be intensely interested in making sure that all of our schools have the resources necessary to put good teachers in every classroom and provide the books and computers and facilities that students need to learn, whether that means sending them more money or changing laws so they can spend money more efficiently or both.
And if the funding is distributed in a way that recognizes that it costs more to educate poor children than better-off children, then we will have gone a long way toward giving every child the opportunity to get a good education and become a contributing member of our society rather than a drain on it. And that is what we must do if our state is ever to reach its potential, because we are only as strong as our weakest links.
Our Legislature took its first step toward better educating poor children this year, when it approved Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to take poverty into account in distributing state funds, and that was hugely important, and she deserves credit for that. It was not, however, a complete fix. Even if we increased that new poverty weighting, and added in a weighting for concentrations of poverty, that wouldn’t be a complete fix.
We won’t have a complete fix until we stop treating public education as a hybrid state-local responsibility and acknowledge that part of our state constitution that declares the state’s duty to provide a good education to all children. Regardless of where they live. Regardless of how wealthy or poor their neighbors are. Regardless of how liberal or conservative the elected officials in their communities are.
Vincent Sheheen hasn’t forgotten that. And he’s reminding the rest of us of that. And that’s a very good thing, whether he manages to win his second time out or not.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.