Improving the life opportunities for South Carolina’s school children is firmly within our reach. The state is sitting on hundreds of millions in budget surplus. Lawmakers say they’re ready to use a big chunk for public education.
Yet the bill currently rushing through our legislature retreads a disappointing and decades-old path in our state — big promises and tough talk, but no fundamental change to entrenched education inequality. If we fail again, it will be more devastating than before. It will provide a new justification for future refusals to make critical investments in our public schools and open the door to privatization.
Our state leaders seem sincere in making education reform a priority this year. But the pending reform bill is built upon a set of misguided assumptions about school funding, education standards, and teacher salaries.
The state education funding formula operates on estimates that date back to 1976. For years, the Legislature has resisted even funding those old expectations. The South Carolina Department of Education now indicates that the state is underfunding high poverty school districts by more than $4,000 per pupil. A recent study, The Real Shame of the Nation, estimates that our typical district receives $2,600 per pupil less than what is necessary to achieve “average” academic outcomes. In poor districts, the gap climbs to $7,500 per pupil.
Rather than pay this debt, the pending education reform bill ignores it.
Lawmakers say that if we just simplify the funding system and local districts better manage their budgets, we won’t have a funding problem.
The state’s current strategy is upside down and missing pieces. School finance experts and experience from states such as Kentucky, Kansas, and Maryland show that true education reform begins with a thorough and independent evaluation of the cost of our children’s education needs.
Education costs must be adjusted to address building repair and maintenance, teacher wages, transportation, utilities and other expenditures that vary among the regions in our state. Most importantly, students who require essential programs and interventions must also fully factor into the cost analysis. Four decades of research shows that students from poorer households and communities, students learning English, and students with differing categories of disability all need more resources than the average student.
The pending legislation does not even hint at these needs. Instead, it assumes current funding levels are sufficient, defying the overwhelming evidence to the contrary from outside experts and our own Department of Education and Supreme Court. The bill then pours salt on the wound by imposing a host of new program mandates and “college and career ready” standards with no acknowledgment that these things require even more resources.
Whether we are talking about disadvantaged or privileged kids — kids from Greenville, Charleston, Columbia, or Abbeville — figuring out what education costs depends on the specific outcomes we expect from students. Basic skills cost one thing. Minimal adequacy costs another. College and career readiness costs something more.
At bottom, the current bill is a classic set of unfunded state mandates. If local districts don’t comply with those mandates, their schools can be closed, turned over to charter school operators, privatized, or taken over by the state itself.
Legislators miss the fact that we’ve been down this type of road before with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal government set aggressive but unfunded goals for schools. It then labeled them all failures when they did not meet those goals. Our most underfunded schools were the hardest hit — the very schools the feds claimed to want to help.
This self-fulfilling prophecy not only eroded confidence in public schools, it allowed the federal government to impose teacher evaluation systems, a common core curriculum, and more charter schools. States went along because they were broke and out of options, not because these were good ideas. Underfunded schools, top-down mandates, and the rapid expansion of charter schools have proven so harmful that they have sparked protests across the nation two years in a row.
The pending bill is our own version of this NCLB disaster waiting to happen all over again. The state has underpaid teachers and underfunded schools for so long that the prospect of any type of change comes as a sigh of relief to many. But unfunded mandates in exchange for vague promises of minor raises and funding reforms are a Trojan horse. A bill that sets new mandates without fully paying for them all but assures failure, harsh consequences, and privatization of public schools. And promises of minor short-term teacher raises without a funding formula that allows teacher salaries and district hiring needs to fairly adjust for years to come will not end our teacher shortage, rebuild the profession, or ensure students’ access to the most critical education resource of all: quality teachers.
Our children deserve a fresh start — schools that offer them a decent chance in life. Let’s fund competitive salaries that attract and retain high-quality teachers. Let’s provide guidance counselors, nurses, and social workers in every school to respond to kids’ individual needs and aspirations. Let’s provide smaller classes and interventions for struggling students in high poverty schools. Let’s enroll 3- and 4-year-olds in high-quality early education programs that ensure they are ready to hit the ground running in kindergarten. Let’s figure out what those things cost and fund them.
This isn’t just smart policy. It’s our constitutional duty. The South Carolina Constitution requires the General Assembly to “provide for” and “support” a “system of free public schools” for “all children.” Our Supreme Court explained that this constitutional mandate includes “adequate and safe facilities” and the “opportunity to acquire” the appropriate skills and knowledge in core subjects. In 2014, the Court found that the legislature was failing in that core responsibility.
It has taken the state decades to get to this point of admitting it needs reform. We shouldn’t squander the opportunity by doing more of the same under a different name. We need true reform that assesses students’ needs and devotes resources toward meeting them. If our lawmakers move forward without doing this, they will just make things worse. It’s time to finally get education reform right before yet another generation of children is deprived of the education they deserve and to which they are entitled.