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SC schools chief says rural teacher pay, school facilities are top priorities

tglantz@thestate.com

Helping rural school districts replace aging facilities, access technology and pay teachers higher salaries are top priorities for South Carolina’s schools chief, she told state senators Wednesday.

Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, R-Saluda, said she will urge lawmakers to rethink the state’s “out of whack” pay scale for teachers next year, after a review of salaries is complete.

“I'm particularly stressed by our low starting salary,” Spearman told a panel of senators tasked with coming up with ways to improve the state’s K-12 public schools in response to a state Supreme Court ruling. First-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn about $32,000 a year, on average, in South Carolina.

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, told Spearman that lawmakers should keep teachers in mind as they consider education proposals when they return to work in Columbia Tuesday.

"(T)here are a lot of very outstanding individuals who are teaching in our schools every day, underpaid, and they're doing it because they love what they do."

Legislators have been looking for ways to improve public schools since the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in late 2014 that the state has failed to provide all S.C. children with the quality of education required by the state Constitution.

That ruling came in response to a 1993 lawsuit that more than 30 impoverished, rural school districts filed against the state, seeking more money.

Among her other proposals, Spearman called for a “huge assessment” of struggling school districts’ operations and academics to identify ways to save money and improve the quality of education in every school.

South Carolina has more than 80 school districts, and consolidating some has been suggested as a way to improve performance in low-performing districts. Spearman suggested the state give money to school districts to consolidate or combine functions to lower costs and offer students more education opportunities.

Expanding the state’s virtual-school program – where students can take classes on the internet – also will help address teacher shortages in rural districts, she said.

Spearman said her Education Department is increasing the professional development and technical assistance that it offers to school districts. But she also urged lawmakers to agree to spend state money to help rural districts improve facilities.

Some school districts with strong tax bases can raise tax money easily to pay for buildings and other needs, she said. But smaller, rural districts with sluggish economies “have to do that (borrow) to cover the roof.”

A S.C. House education panel has proposed creating a state loan program that rural, poor schools could borrow money from at low or no interest to help pay for new buildings.

But Spearman said Wednesday the state should go a step further, setting aside money that the districts could draw down as grants that do not have to be repaid.

“The state needs to realize that in these areas, we can't set up an infrastructure bank where we anticipate that these districts are going to be able to pay back the loans,” she said. “They're going to need the state to come in and really help build those buildings (and) set up the technology that’s needed.”

Spending more money to beef up technology, improve the state’s aging school-bus fleet and help rural districts reduce long bus routes also are top priorities, she said.

“We want every student to be achieving at a high level,” whether they are going after graduation to college, the military or into a career, Spearman said.

“That's my goal: to provide those opportunities to every child in the state.”

Fixing S.C. schools

Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman also recommended the state:

▪  Give school districts more money for technology so students have greater access to computers and the internet, including in their homes. For example, the Education Department has asked for $33.6 million in new state money for technology for districts.

▪  Continue to expand the state’s free 4-year-old kindergarten program and ensure that no children are on waiting lists

▪  Over the next two or three years, change the way the state decides how much state money goes to school districts; the current system, created in 1977, has been criticized widely for being unfair

▪  Ensure changes focus first on impoverished, rural school districts that sued the state for more support

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