Politics & Government

Why an overhaul of SC public education likely won’t become law this year

In a February display of unity, Gov. Henry McMaster and State House leaders reaffirmed their commitment to passing sweeping reforms in 2019 to help fix the state’s antiquated public education system and shore up the teacher shortage.

But the comprehensive bill they wrote is running out of time to pass this year.

Lawmakers are skeptical that House Speaker Jay Lucas’ proposal that would, in part, seek to consolidate small, rural school districts, reduce state-required testing and create a new education advisory committee will become law this year.

The Legislature officially adjourns for the year on May 9. Lawmakers still must pass a $9 billion general fund budget — always the heaviest lift of the legislative year. And, over the next few days, lawmakers will be preoccupied with trying to make sure their own bills pass either the House or Senate before the critical April 10 crossover deadline.

The education bill also faces the threat of a days-long filibuster in the Senate by state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Farfield, a longtime educator who says the bill does more harm than good.

“I don’t think we’ll pass any sweeping legislation like that before the end of the year,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, adding, “but could we pass some rifle-shot legislation that could have an impact before the next school year? Possibly.”

Back in March, the S.C. House overwhelmingly adopted its omnibus schools bill H. 3759 — after weeks of debate, several public hearings and a major revision to cut out some parts of the bill that teachers opposed.

The Senate — which considers itself the Legislature’s more “deliberative body” — however is still debating its own version of the bill. That Senate panel is set to send the bill to the full Senate Education Committee by next week.

McMaster and Lucas, a Darlington Republican, both have called on the Senate to move quicker.

“Gov. McMaster said it during the inaugural address, the State of the State address and he’s said it ever since — this is the year for bold education reform,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. “The momentum to make meaningful change is on our side now, and the only thing we know we can’t afford is inaction.”

McMaster has said the Legislature must pass education reform while there is momentum behind the proposal. What he did not say is that next year is an election year for the entire Legislature — a factor that makes it harder to pass controversial or complex legislation.

“This is the year to bring meaningful education reform to South Carolina,” said Lucas, who sponsored the House bill. “Trying to kill the bill under the guise of deliberative review is unacceptable.”

Still, some lawmakers are looking at plan B: passing education reforms through the budget or in smaller chunks.

They point to, as an example, the $159 million that lawmakers so far have agreed to spend next year to raise starting teacher salaries to $35,000 and give all teachers, at minimum, a 4-percent pay raise. That raise, they say, will help recruit and keep teachers.

“I am still optimistic that we can pass something that will make a difference in education this year,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who sits on the Senate’s budget and education committees. “But there’s nothing magic about whether you pass a bill or do it through the budget.”

Some lawmakers also say they see a silver lining in pushing the education reform debate into next year.

“I was happy to see the state make education a bipartisan priority, but we made a lot of missteps in the process,” said state Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, one of four House members to vote against the education bill in March, citing a lack of vetting.

“We made a critical mistake by not including educators in the process early on. It was a tremendous missed opportunity.”

Staff writer Avery G. Wilks contributed to this report.

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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.