Politics & Government

SC House passes education overhaul, while one senator works to tear it up and start over

Even before the S.C. House overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday for a massive proposal that aims to reform the state’s failing public school system, a Democratic state senator was plotting the bill’s demise.

After a contentious six-hour debate, House Republicans and Democrats reconciled and voted 113-4 to pass the 80-page bill.

“I’m proud of the work the House, the education community and the business community have put into this bill,” said the bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “Our teachers and students deserve better, and the passing of this bill is a right step in bringing our education system into the 21st century.”

Still, state Sen. Mike Fanning told The State on Tuesday state lawmakers should scrap the House’s bill — H. 3759 — and start over, this time letting teachers help draft the legislation that would affect their jobs and their students.

Fanning, a longtime educator from Great Falls, said he is marshaling opposition to Lucas’ proposal in the Senate, quietly recruiting his colleagues to stand with him as he uses a host of tactics to delay debate and a final vote on the proposal.

Asked if the bill will pass the Senate, Fanning replied: “Not if I can help it. My goal is to find the brake pedal.”

Education is not a partisan situation’

The House’s lengthy debate on the proposal Wednesday evening followed weeks of hearings and a significant revision of the bill to address teachers’ concerns.

More than an hour into the debate, the House voted 109-9 to adopt that revision by the House Education and Public Works Committee, which included adding in a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The House also adopted changes that would give teachers a daily, 30-minute planning period and give teachers who live and work in rural, high-poverty school districts a refundable income tax credit equal to 100 percent of their property taxes for up to five years.

But at times, the debate became tense, especially as the GOP-dominated House debated and shot down a series of changes proposed by Democrats to the S.C. Education, Career Opportunity, and Access for All Act.

“So is there really access for all, or is there access for Republican-controlled education?” asked state Rep. Chris Hart, D-Richland.

The sides mostly reconciled by the end of the debate, as the House adopted a handful of proposals Democrats suggested.

But not everyone was happy.

State Rep. John King, D-York, tried to delay the vote by invoking a little-known rule requiring the entire bill be read aloud in the House first. But he stood down after House Republicans moved to take back their compromises with Democrats.

In the end, King voted against the bill along with Republican Rep. Jonathon Hill of Anderson and Democrats Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg and Wendy Brawley of Richland. They complained the bill was being rushed without enough vetting.

Lawmakers from both parties hope the bill will help fix the state’s dismal school system and alleviate the ongoing teacher shortage, pointing to pieces of the bill that would raise the state’s minimum teacher pay to $35,000 and get rid of four state-mandated tests.

“This is not a Democrat or Republican situation,” said state Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, who chairs the House education committee. “Education is not a partisan situation.”

‘A do-nothing bill’

Now, the focus shifts to the Senate, where the bill faces more skepticism and a tougher road to passage.

Senators — working on their own draft of Lucas’s bill, S. 419 — have stripped out several controversial components they describe as “feel good” language that has no real impact.

Wednesday, a Senate education panel deleted the bill’s “Students Bill of Rights” — an aspirational section explaining what students should get out of their education. Senators also removed part of the bill creating a new advisory committee to monitor the state’s education system and recommend changes. Critics argue a new committee would needlessly add another layer of government bureaucracy.

And, responding to concerns students already are over-tested, the Senate removed three social studies and science tests from the bill.

Those changes likely won’t be enough to satisfy Fanning, who told voters in 2016 he was running for the Senate in order to give teachers a vote in the State House.

Fanning says the lengthy bill does far more harm than good, and was originally drafted without teachers’ input.

The bill gives the state’s superintendent of education more authority to take over failing schools and districts, but that won’t solve systemic issues, such as cyclical poverty, that hamstring rural schools for decades, Fanning argues. He noted that the state is again taking over Allendale schools, years after former schools chief Inez Tenenbaum took them over and made changes.

“We’ve blown our shot on a bill that’s a do-nothing bill,” he said. “It’s better to do right than to do it right now.”

‘Now is the time’

Fanning, the director of an education advocacy nonprofit that serves nine school districts, already is working on tactics to talk the bill to death.

In an interview, he said he wants to fill up the Senate calendar with other bills to delay debate on the education bill. He also is working to draft amendments to the education bill that each will require debate before the bill is passed.

And he is working with other senators to build a list of questions they can ask him — or vice versa — to keep a potentially days-long filibuster going. He wouldn’t name the other senators, saying they aren’t ready to “stick their necks out” on the issue just yet.

His filibuster threat is a significant. The Senate rarely votes to sit down a filibustering senator, most recently invoking that option against state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, during the 2017 gas-tax hike debate.

Senate Democrats are unlikely to shut down one of their own, and Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said Wednesday ending a filibuster will be difficult since the chamber’s Republicans don’t have the votes to do it alone.

“I hope we’ll be able to avoid a cloture vote (to end the filibuster), though,” he said.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said the state can’t afford to not pass the bill because of the state’s shortage in skilled workers.

“If we don’t get it this year, we might never get it, so now is the time,” he said. “Here’s the important thing: We are competing economically with other states and entities all over the place. To be viewed as weak anywhere in education is a blow to our credibility in the economic market, in the marketplace.”

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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.
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.