Politics & Government

On SC Legislature’s Day 1, closed-door meeting gets ball rolling on school reform

S.C. lawmakers returned to the State House on Tuesday for the first day of their two-year session.

But while the state Senate elected a new president and S.C. House staff read aloud nearly 500 prefiled bills, the most important meeting of the day was a barbecue lunch held behind closed doors on the other end of the State House complex.

For more than an hour, the House Republican Caucus — making up an overwhelming majority of the Legislature’s lower chamber — met to discuss the GOP’s plans for education reform.

For many GOP House members, the discussion offered the first glimpse into the thinking of House Speaker Jay Lucas, the Darlington Republican who is trying to put together a comprehensive proposal to address the shortcomings of South Carolina’s K-12 school system.

Lucas’ yet-to-be-released proposal is said to be upwards of 70 pages long, and will include such options as raising teacher pay, reducing classroom burdens on teachers and consolidating school districts.

Tuesday’s House GOP Caucus meeting — including a slideshow presentation outlining South Carolina’s school-funding woes and poor educational outcomes — made evident the powerful speaker’s top priority for the 2019-20 legislative session: reversing a growing teacher shortage and pulling the Palmetto State out of the cellar of national education rankings.

“We gave the caucus a high-level view of the long overdue changes we need to our education funding and education policy, and bringing accountability to a process that has had none so far,” said Michael Anzelmo, the speaker’s chief of staff.

The stakes are high.

South Carolina’s more than 53,000 public school teachers are becoming more engaged — both at the State House and on social media — in pushing for reform. Also, a small but growing faction of teachers has warned lawmakers that without pay raises and more flexibility in the classroom — for instance, ensuring teachers have more planning time — they will walk out.

Republicans who attended Tuesday’s House GOP meeting told The State the one-topic meeting reminded them of the lengthy caucus meetings held before the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a gas-tax hike to repair the state’s crumbling roads and voted to slash SCE&G’s electric rates after the utility’s V.C. Summer nuclear debacle.

Details of Lucas’ impending proposal were not released at Tuesday’s closed-door meeting and remain scarce.

But Republicans who attended said the caucus meeting are confident Lucas’ proposal will raise teacher pay and reduce administrative burdens, giving teachers more time to focus on instruction.

House Democrats have not been briefed on Lucas’ upcoming proposal.

However, a handful of Democrats, who long have pushed for education reform, told The State that they will be included in talks as Lucas fleshes out his proposal.

Also, while House Speaker Lucas is taking the lead in the education reform effort, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and the state Senate eventually will have to weigh in to pass any proposal into law.

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.