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Good news, bad news: Back to the political branches

AS THE ABOVE editorial indicates, the matter of whether young children will have a chance at a good education in South Carolina is back in the hands of the political branches. That’s very good and very bad.

It’s very good because such matters of fundamental policy are political in nature. The courts can and should do no more than give us the constitutional parameters within which to act. And what the constitution says isn’t much:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the State and shall establish, organize and support such other public institutions of learning, as may be desirable.”

Courts have elaborated on that slightly. In 1999, the state Supreme Court added “minimally adequate” in front of “system” (not literally, as in amending the constitution, but in terms of our legal understanding). Many education advocates today, just a very few years later, see that “minimally” as a damning sentence of inadequacy. The great irony in that is that the chief justice who presided over that addition saw it as a great step forward for the progressive approach to education, insisting that South Carolina not define “adequate” below a certain, minimal level. That’s not the proper purview of judges, but in any case he did not have the effect he’d hoped for.

Words can be slippery.

I am reminded of the late Douglas Adams’ hilarious series of satirical science fiction novels. One of his main characters was a researcher for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The universe being a big place, the Guide had devoted only one word to describing Earth: “Harmless.” After 15 years of intensive research here on our planet, the field man manages to get his editors to expand the entry so that it reads, in its entirety: “Mostly harmless.”

As it happens, 15 years is only one year longer than the life span of the lawsuit over where we will set the floor for educational opportunity in the poor, rural parts of our state. Abbeville County School District (et al.) v. the State of South Carolina was filed on Nov. 2, 1993. Almost 14 years later, it has added “minimally adequate” to our understanding of our constitutional obligation regarding education — and not even the people who agree on what they want our school system to be can agree on whether “minimally” is a good addition or a bad one.

On to the political branches. That’s where the “very bad news” part comes in.

Education is the biggest thing government does at the state level, which is why people who vaguely, but insistently, desire to “reduce the size of government” are always talking about vouchers and tax credits aimed at preventing the state from spending so much on public schools.

It also happens to be the one thing that government does that can most affect whether our state prospers. South Carolina hasn’t done it very well, relatively speaking, and so we have not prospered as well as other states. It’s not that we don’t know how to educate. It’s that we’ve never resolved to extend the sort of education available in our prosperous suburbs to the rural parts of our state that have been economically irrelevant since the end of slavery. The test scores from those areas pull down the state’s averages, scaring off economic development, which keeps those areas poor, which continues to scare off economic development, etc.

It’s possible to break the cycle, but it would take a tremendous mustering and focusing of political will to overcome certain rather powerful political barriers.

The Legislature won’t provide the answer, because it is the nexus of 170 political agendas. Many of the most adept of the 170 are from districts that see themselves as losing what they’ve got in any effort to focus resources on the poorest districts.

The one political figure in the state in a position to chart a course that steers around all those shoals of local interest — to articulate a bold vision of statewide interest over the heads of lawmakers and fire up the electorate — is the governor. And our current governor hasn’t the slightest interest in doing that. He’s one of the folks who wants us to spend less on public education.

(But “Spending alone won’t do it!”, you cry. You’re right. It will require implementing a comprehensive vision of reform, from classrooms to the state Department of Education. But if you’re not willing to spend, you can forget the rest. As long as the affluent parts of our state see themselves losing in a zero-sum game, you can’t turn around the poor parts with current overall spending levels.)

The alternative would be an uprising of the people, a grass-roots movement that would make it impossible for even the most parochial of lawmakers to ignore the broader view.

There is such a movement. A group called “Education First” plans to dramatize the need to get serious about improving public schools by putting up interstate billboards that will welcome visitors to South Carolina, the “home of ‘minimally adequate’ education.” This will humiliate us all, and effectively dramatize the moral indignation of the sincere, well-meaning liberal Democrats who lead “Education First.”

Meanwhile, the State House is run by Republicans. Fortunately, many of those Republicans are more interested in public schools than the governor is, at least within the contexts of their own districts. Unfortunately, for them to become emboldened to risk themselves for a broader cause, they need to hear a message that sounds like it came from the people who elected them, and might elect them again.

So much for the political branches.

This state of affairs is not “mostly harmless” to South Carolina. Tragically, it is not even minimally so.

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