Politics & Government

SC House speaker says education agency’s proposed changes would weaken school reform

Powerful S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas successfully pressured the Education Oversight Committee on Monday to hold off on changing part of the state’s school-rating system, saying changing it would “reward underperforming schools with higher ratings.”

That would make it harder for the state to take over failing schools, some fear.

The changes had been proposed by state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, who said Monday she was “baffled and disappointed” that Lucas would try to halt “common-sense changes.”

Monday’s scuffle is the first public sign of conflict between the speaker and the state’s schools superintendent over education reform. “I’ve been outmaneuvered,” Spearman said at Monday’s Oversight Committee meeting.

Lucas is leading a legislative effort to address the state’s teacher shortage and reform K-12 schools. He said the changes would undermine those reform efforts.

In a letter, the Darlington Republican said changing how the state rates schools and student performance would lower standards, a “disservice” to S.C. students.

Those ratings are highlighted in the state’s school report cards.

Last month, Lucas filed a bill — H. 3759 — that includes proposals to raise the pay of starting teachers to $35,000 a year and consolidate school districts — mostly in rural areas — with less than 1,000 students. A companion bill — S. 419 — filed by Senate Education Committee chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, will come up for its first public hearing Wednesday.

Keeping the current rating system is important so the state can detect underperforming schools and school districts where money should be spent, Lucas said. The current system “exists to achieve that very objective,” he said.

Some were concerned the Education Department’s proposal to change the performance-rating system would result in some failing schools getting higher ratings, making it more difficult for the state to declare the schools failing. The state can take over failing schools.

“Reportedly, the proposed changes could potentially degrade our accountability system, water down our current rating system and reward underperforming schools with higher ratings,” Lucas said. “I cannot see how inflating points earned by schools will improve student’ outcomes.”

But Spearman said that is not the case.

She said the Education Department’s proposed changes would have had zero impact on education reform efforts. Instead, most states are making the proposed changes as they realize unintended effects of their K-12 rating systems, she said.

The proposals included changing how the state measures student growth at continually high-achieving schools, so as to stop holding those schools to “unattainable growth requirements,” Spearman said.

“These proposals are not comprehensive and do not water down our accountability system,” Spearman said, “nor do they improperly award low-performing schools in any way.”

But the appointed Oversight Committee that approves all changes to state education standards sided with Lucas, saying Monday the proposed changes would have created confusion and shaken the state’s rating system. Spearman does not have a vote on the committee.

Spearman told the Oversight Committee the Education Department requested the changes in “good faith” after hearing concerns from constituents, parents, educators, even legislators. “(You) can’t say we didn’t do a process,” she said.

“I am baffled and disappointed that Speaker Lucas has chosen to air his grievances against the common-sense changes needed to South Carolina’s ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) plan in this manner rather than speaking directly with me and the hundreds of teachers and administrators that have called for these practical revisions,” said Spearman, a former state representative.

After the vote, board member Neil Robinson asked the Oversight Committee and the Education Department together review any changes to the K-12 school-rating system for the 2019-20 school year.

“Never in my wildest imagination did I think the U.S. Department of Education would allow states to annually change their ESSA plan,” Robinson said, adding, “nor did we anticipate ... significant changes to (the) system every year.”

Robinson had been the Oversight Committee’s chairman. However, Monday school-choice advocate Ellen Weaver, a former staffer for then-U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, was elected committee chair.

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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.