Politics & Government

SC lawmakers: schools need more funding, consolidation

Some legislators say more funding is needed to fix South Carolina's schools, and others say part of the answer could consolidating some districts.

One of the hot-button issues in 2016 for South Carolina lawmakers was education reform and how to approach funding woes and a complete system overhaul. On Thursday, lawmakers met with members of the media to talk about the course for 2017.

One of the more extreme examples of school district failure in the state’s “corridor of shame” — counties surrounding Interstate 95 that have notoriously low education rates — is Florence School District 4 in Timmonsville.

Florence 4 was taken over by the State Board of Education last year after more than a decade of abysmal test scores and low graduation rates. A potential remedy to Florence 4, among other failing districts in the state, is district consolidation.

With five school districts in Florence County, consolidation might be a natural move to help the struggling district. However, regardless of the recommendations from local and state officials, the Department of Education cannot force districts to merge.

Ultimately, it would require an act of the state legislature, which created the districts to begin with. Several lawmakers said Thursday that consolidation is a viable move.

Rep. Rita Allison, a Republican from Spartanburg and chairwoman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, has visited the area several times to survey the problem.

“On a local level many people understand that their children would be better served from consolidation,” she said. “In that area [Timmonsville] there is opportunity to consolidate. As we move forward with new facilities and technologies we want to help the community itself. If consolidation means students have a better opportunity to receive good education it’s certainly on the table.”

Rep. Gild Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg-area Democrat — one of the areas in the corridor of shame — said this conversation is more than two decades old and the time for talk has passed.

“That’s two generations of kids gone through high school or dropped out and we are still talking and studying the issue,” she said. “I agree that money isn’t the total answer but there is merit in the point that where your spend your money shows your priorities. At some point this legislature decided that disparity was OK when it comes to education and economic development in these areas.”

Sen. Tom Davis is more critical of funding boosts. He said the money is already there; it’s just being poorly allocated and woefully mismanaged.

“South Carolina ranks 24th in the nation in per-person funding. Right now we have about 10 different funding programs,” he said. “Collapse all of those mechanisms into one transparent stream. I think there’s an all-of-the-above approach, and maybe the areas in the Abbeville case need more funding, but pumping more money into a broken system isn’t the answer.”

Another topic tossed around Thursday was more funding for the state’s higher education system.

The General Assembly will reconvene on Jan. 10.