Education

Fix for rural, high-poverty SC schools begins to take shape

In 2012, The State accompanied a group of USC studentsto Denmark-Olar Elementary School in Bamberg where they weatherized two portable classrooms in an effort to help the "corridor of shame" school become more energy efficient and potentially save some money. Here, Maintenance Supervisor, Jimmie Shepherd, examines particle board that was put in place to block sun from coming into, and heating up, classrooms.
In 2012, The State accompanied a group of USC studentsto Denmark-Olar Elementary School in Bamberg where they weatherized two portable classrooms in an effort to help the "corridor of shame" school become more energy efficient and potentially save some money. Here, Maintenance Supervisor, Jimmie Shepherd, examines particle board that was put in place to block sun from coming into, and heating up, classrooms. mbergen@thestate.com

School districts with extreme poverty could receive about $660 more for each impoverished student they educate if a S.C. House panel’s recommendations become law.

Another proposal – one of dozens the panel debated in a five-hour meeting Thursday – could give poor, rural school districts $1,500 more for each elementary student they teach.

The panel should approve the recommendations next month. Then, they will go to the S.C. House, where lawmakers might use the proposals to draft legislation in next year’s session, which starts in January.

The recommendations reflect a wish list of proposals aimed at improving various aspects of the state’s K-12 public schools. The House education task force was formed to answer a court order requiring the state to improve its schools.

Last November, the S.C. Supreme Court ordered lawmakers and the poor, rural school districts, which sued the state for more money in 1993, to work together to come up with a fix for the problems.

Some of the recommendations the panel gave an initial OK to Thursday include:

▪  Re-evaluating teacher salaries, a move that could lead to higher pay, including programs to attract and keep good teachers in struggling districts

▪  Establishing a low- or no-interest construction loan program that poor districts could use to replace aging or inadequate facilities

▪  Spending more money on school buses and creating more efficient transportation systems to cut the time that students spend traveling to school, which can exceed three hours a day .

▪  Increasing the authority of the S.C. Department of Education to take over struggling school districts

▪  Encouraging smaller, rural districts to combine their administrative functions or, if necessary, consolidate

Tensions between lawmakers and representatives of the school districts that sued the state rose briefly at the meeting – highlighting the districts’ desire for lawmakers to move swiftly to help poor, rural schools.

Clarendon 2 Superintendent John Tindal urged the panel to acknowledge those school districts suffer from limited tax bases, aging buildings, high transportation costs, and difficulty in attracting good teachers and leaders.

“These schools are not hopeless ... but they face a set of challenges not found in most of the rest of the state,” Tindal said.

State Rep. Rita Allison, the panel’s chairman, said putting more money toward school buses and early-childhood education are priorities that could be met in next year’s state budget.

But many of the panel’s recommendations may have to be phased in, said the Spartanburg Republican. “I don’t think that any of us felt that we were going to do this overnight.”

State Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, who chairs a House education budget panel, said re-evaluating and possibly raising teacher pay is a priority.

“(W)e’ve got to start looking” at teacher salaries, he said, adding, “Hopefully, that will be this year in the upcoming budget.”

The panel’s recommendations do not include cost estimates or how to pay those costs.

While the Supreme Court has ordered the state to fix its rural schools, lawmakers also will be under pressure to spend more money to repair for the state’s crumbling roads and pay for damage from last month’s historic flooding.

David Longshore, a member of the House task force and a former superintendent in Orangeburg, said lawmakers can pass legislation to enact the recommendations next year “if the will is there to do it.”

“We realize this is a poor state and resources are scarce, and they have to be phased-in over time,” he said. “But we’ve got to make a start, and we want a commitment to do it.”

Improving SC’s public schools

The House Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force met Thursday to discuss recommendations for improving public schools. Here are some of the panel’s recommendations, up for final approval next month:

▪  More money to school districts — up to $660 a student — with large numbers of students living in poverty

▪  Re-evaluate teacher salaries, possibly increasing pay in next year's budget

▪  Spend more on school buses and improve school-bus routes to cut the time that students spend traveling to and from classes

▪  Set up a low- or no-interest construction loan program for poor districts to build new facilities

▪  Require school districts to evaluate their operations with a goal of cutting costs

▪  Expand the S.C. Virtual School – the state’s program for online courses – to rural school districts

▪  Allow state intervention into low-performing school districts, including takeovers

▪  Expand professional development for educators

▪  Pay more to teachers who teach children in poverty and have additional training in that area

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