Editorials

Editorial: Act now to keep merit in SC merit scholarships

rthompson@thestate.com

WHEN THE LEGISLATURE created LIFE scholarships in 1998, it instructed the state Board of Education to establish a uniform high school grade scale to even out the standards across the state. That scale set an “A” at 93 out of 100, a “B” at 85-92, a “C” at 77-84 and a “D” at 70-76.

In the 15 years since, the Legislature has created HOPE scholarships and increased the value of LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships, and tens of thousands of students have received one of the state’s merit scholarships every year — so many that the programs outgrew the lottery revenues we were promised would fund them and had to be subsidized by general tax revenue.

Last month, without any instruction or even suggestions from the Legislature, the State Board of Education lowered the standards for all of those scholarships. Starting this fall, a 90 will get you an “A,” and an 80 will become a “B” — which guarantees some sort of merit scholarship.

Supporters say the change was designed with an entirely different goal: to help S.C. student-athletes meet NCAA requirements and to help other students compete for scholarships with students from states that use the 10-point scale. State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said her plan was “not about watering down grades” but rather was designed to “help level the playing field for our students as they compete for scholarships with students from other states.”

Actually, it is watering down our grades; this is an indisputable mathematical fact. But Ms. Spearman’s argument makes perfectly good sense — when it comes to competing under rules set outside of South Carolina. Certainly, our students who finish high school with a 90 average should be eligible for the same scholarships as 90-average students in other states. Certainly, our college athletic programs shouldn’t be forced to reject an S.C. student with a 75 average while accepting an N.C. student with that same score.

But the argument doesn’t wash when it comes to scholarships funded by our state government and available only to S.C. students. And that is where this change will have the biggest effect: Once the new system is phased in, as many as 13,000 students a year are expected to receive scholarships they wouldn’t qualify for today. That will increase the cost of the scholarships by $50 million a year, to $350 million.

Advocates know this; Ms. Spearman has made a point of saying she would work with the Legislature “to see if they see that as a good thing.” But no one has even attempted to explain — much less advocate for — why it would be a good thing to lower the requirements for all of our merit-based scholarships.

Here it’s useful to remember what has happened as the cost of the “lottery” scholarships has increased: State funding for our public colleges has plummeted. That’s because legislators like to pretend that paying for scholarships is the same as funding colleges. It is not. Paying for a scholarship simply changes the name on the tuition check, from the students or their parents to the state of South Carolina.

So if nothing changes, we all know where the Legislature will get that extra $50 million a year to pay for those new scholarships that the Board of Education just approved: additional cuts to our colleges and universities.

The question isn’t whether we should reduce the merit required for our merit scholarships — although we believe there are better ways to spend our higher-education money. The question is who should have the power to change a very clear legislative policy, and the answer is not the Board of Education.

If our Legislature believes we need to give a scholarship to every student who graduates from high school with an 80 average instead of the current 85, it certainly can vote to do that. But absent that vote, the standards need to remain the same that they’ve always been.

The only way to make that happen — to maintain the status quo — is to change the scholarship criteria in state law, so students still have to earn at least an 85 average to receive a basic scholarship, and correspondingly higher grades for the other scholarships.

And the time to make that happen is right now, in the state budget bill the Senate is debating this week — before 13,000 high school seniors receive new grades that lead them to believe they’re going to receive scholarships they didn’t earn.

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