Opinion Extra

Parkey: Make education the priority

In the June Jim Self Center on the Future publication "Financing Education in South Carolina," which focuses on k-12 schools, Holley Ulbrich and Ellen Saltzman note that today's economy requires an educated and trainable workforce, and South Carolina risks losing economic growth opportunities if education is allowed to falter.

These findings are bolstered by the August report on investing in South Carolina's higher education system, conducted by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. The Moore School report notes that 24 percent of workers in South Carolina aged 25-65 have college degrees. Were this ratio to rise by 5 percentage points, widespread benefits would be in store, including more than 45,000 new permanent jobs and an additional $7.8 billion in gross state product per year. At the 29 percent threshold, the state stands to gain a $25 return on each additional dollar invested in education. For a state economy in need of help, these projections are extremely important.

While the specific dollar impacts of educational investment generally are not clear to most people, the relationship between prosperity and education investment is known, positive and potentially large. We anxiously await our results in achievement rankings, and in recent years, we have seen some improvements.

The on-time high school graduation rate has improved. South Carolina is one of the five fastest improving states in SAT and ACT scores. We rank in the top half of states in advanced placement participation and passage. According to the 2007 "Nation's Report Card," we have improved in science and math test scores. Still, our 42nd and 41st respective rankings for fourth- and eighth-grade students indicate that reading at grade level remains an issue. There are also notable gaps in performance across the state's demographic and socioeconomic sectors.

It appears that South Carolinians are ready to take the business of educating our children seriously, and they are ready to pay up to support the needed funding.

I say this because over the course of the past three years, The Self Portrait, a twice-a-year telephone survey conducted by the Jim Self Center on the Future at Clemson University and the Survey Research Laboratory at the University of South Carolina, has asked the question: Should spending on education in South Carolina be decreased, kept the same or increased even if it means raising taxes? Of the more than 800 participants surveyed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, 65 percent, 61 percent and 70 percent respectively said that funding for K-12 education should be increased even if it means raising taxes. It's particularly significant that, in the midst of a serious economic situation and extreme joblessness, sentiments for increased funding with taxpayers footing the bill, are at an all-time high.

Certainly, our state is wounded by the current economic situation, and difficult choices will be the order of the day, but Self Portrait results indicate that our citizens know the value of education. The tough economy only underscores the importance of cultivating our homegrown talent and insight. This recovery period is the time to put school funding reforms in place so that residents, business leaders and decision makers can be committed to a strong education system that is financially sustainable and available to all of South Carolina's children. If our leaders take a long term and strategic view now by prioritizing investment in K-12 and higher education, the value to our state will go well beyond the dollars spent.