LET’S TRY an experiment: Let your guard down, pretend everyone is acting in good faith, and imagine we’re creating a brand-new public school system — using all of our knowledge and experience but no allegiance to the existing system.
Since providing a decent education to all children is the responsibility of the state, wouldn’t we start by funding this system entirely with state dollars? Wouldn’t we even prohibit local funding, since local supplements get us right back where we are now, with the education a child can receive depending on where he or she happened to be born?
Wouldn’t we acknowledge that we’ll have to pay good teachers more to teach in rural areas — rather than paying them more to teach in the most desirable areas, as we do now? Wouldn’t we acknowledge that kids who can’t even identify colors when they come to pre-K will need more help than those who know their ABCs? And that whether that means just better teachers or also after-school or summer school, extra help is going to cost more? All of which means the state is going to spend more money in poor areas than in wealthy areas.
And if the state is providing all the money, would we really let local school board members call the shots? Wouldn’t we insist on state control, particularly if we did this exercise right now, with the picture so fresh in our minds of the Allendale school board suing the state — which provides the bulk of its funding — to stop it from taking over the district in advance of spending even more money?
A few years back, then-Rep. (now Sen.) Rex Rice proposed creating a single S.C. school district, with 40 population-based local councils to handle discipline and hire and fire superintendents and principals. He saw this as the only way to stop dividing our state between the haves, which provide a top-rate education to kids lucky enough to live there, and the have-nots, which cheat the kids and drive off employers with ever-higher tax rates that never can generate enough money to match the rich districts’ spending.
If we’re creating a new school system, wouldn’t that idea or something like it be in the mix?
And if we’re willing to consider something that radical, what on earth could justify having 81 districts in a state with just 46 counties? What could justify having several districts with fewer than 1,000 students — that is, districts that are smaller than some high schools?
Consolidating school districts is the one specific solution the state Supreme Court suggested when it ruled in 2014 that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a decent education to children in the poorest districts. Then-Chief Justice Jean Toal noted that instead of merging districts or even consolidating administrative functions, “the Plaintiff Districts have opted for a course of self-preservation, placing all blame for the blighted state of education in their districts at the feet” of the state.
To which the districts said last month, in their annual update to the court: Consolidating schools would be awful. It would tear communities apart, and force students to travel farther (and longer) to get to now-distant schools, which would increase costs.
Did you see what they did there? The court said we need to consolidate districts, and the districts said it would be awful to consolidate schools. It’s the bait-and-switch that small districts have been using for as long as I’ve been writing about the need for consolidation.
In an attachment to their report to the court, the districts note that some unspecified people have speculated that consolidating districts would lead to consolidating (i.e., closing) schools. And it could. But it doesn’t have to; the Legislature could prohibit school closings for some set period post-merger.
The districts also argue that recent consolidations have not saved money. And yes, it’s true that you can focus on protecting jobs rather than saving money. But you don’t have to.
Why wouldn’t a district with lower salaries and fewer courses be begging the Legislature to merge it with a wealthier district?
It might be true too that districts would need to equalize course offerings and salaries at the highest level as part of a merger. But why wouldn’t a district with lower salaries and fewer courses be begging the Legislature to merge it with a wealthier district — and help pay those added costs? Why indeed, unless people are afraid of losing their jobs, or their control?
That same report to the court, by the way, is filled with examples of things poor districts can’t do because they’re too small.
The fact is that while saving money was the court’s focus, that’s not the main reason we need to consolidate more districts. The main reason is to increase the talent pool for school board members and top administrators. It’s to save us from school boards that treat the district like a political-patronage factory, and superintendents who aren’t at the top of their game, because what superintendent who isn’t from there wants to run a tiny little district?
Here’s one more thing that’s true with a caveat: While school districts can’t stop the Legislature from merging them, they also can’t merge themselves. And there have never been any serious efforts in the Legislature to do large-scale consolidations.
Imagine what could happen if there were.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.