THE HEADLINE in Thursday’s State said “Easier to make a ‘B’ but harder to fund scholarships.” I would have used “and” or, even more appropriately, “so.” As in, “Easier to make a ‘B,’ so it’s harder to fund scholarships.”
Because the two ideas aren’t at odds with each other. They are cause and effect.
As I warned when Education Superintendent Molly Spearman convinced the state Board of Education to make the change, lowering the score necessary for high school students to earn a “B” (and an “A”) inevitably increases the number of students who qualify for South Carolina’s HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships.
Those new, lower standards are projected to cost South Carolina $42 million a year by making 11,500 students eligible for scholarships they weren’t eligible for before.
And those scholarships have been on a collision course with our state’s ability to provide basic state services from the moment the Legislature began spending lottery money in 2002.
You might recall that lottery promoters promised that if we’d approve state-sponsored gambling, we’d get scholarships for our best and brightest and a free ride for all technical college students —and a chicken in every pot and several cars in every garage.
What you might not recall is that the lottery was in debt from the start: It couldn’t pay for all those scholarships, so taxpayers had to bail it out. Just — just — $12 million this year, but more than $90 million for a couple of years and more than $50 million for many years.
Every tax dollar we spend on scholarships is a tax dollar we can’t spend to keep our prisons safer and protect children from abusive parents and put enough troopers on our highways and buy safer school buses and do everything else our state isn’t doing well enough.
It’s true that there would be enough lottery money to pay for the scholarships — even for students who didn’t have a “B” average under the old grading scale but do under the new one — if we only spent that money on scholarships. Which is like saying poor families could afford to eat out every night at the finest restaurants if they didn’t use part of their income to pay for medical bills and electricity and transportation and a place to live.
Contrary to the mythology that has taken hold since Gov. Henry McMaster started asserting it as fact, lottery money was never intended to be used exclusively for scholarships. During the lottery campaign, pro-lottery supporters would promise full-day kindergarten to one group, scholarships to another, classroom technology or library upgrades to others. More importantly, when the Legislature wrote the lottery law, it said the money was to be spent on “education,” which it defined quite broadly.
Mr. McMaster has been on his “scholarships only” crusade to explain why he vetoed $20.5 million in lottery funding to replace decades-old, fire-prone school buses. I don’t object to him making the political argument that we should limit lottery money to scholarships. But that’s a political argument, not a legal or constitutional argument.
The lottery law actually requires some lottery money to be spent on school buses every year. The third-highest non-scholarship expenditure in the state’s very first lottery budget — behind endowed chairs and a K-5 reading, math, science and social studies program — was $28 million for school buses. That was more than 10 percent of lottery appropriations. The Legislature has never spent that much lottery money on buses since, but through the years, it has appropriated $145 million in lottery money for buses.
Would I prefer that we used tax money instead of lottery money to pay for school buses? Of course. I’d rather we used tax money to pay for everything — and shut down the lottery. That, of course, will not happen. I’d also prefer that we provide more need-based scholarships, scale back on the merit scholarships and fund colleges adequately, so they don’t have to charge such high tuition. That won’t happen either.
Nor am I holding my breath for what Ms. Spearman is now wisely asking: that the Legislature raise the bar for the merit scholarships back to where it was before she lowered it.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that absolutely should be done. When the Legislature promised those scholarships, it ordered the state Board of Education to establish a uniform high school grade scale, which set an “A” at 93 out of 100, a “B” at 85-92, a “C” at 77-84 and a “D” at 70-76. Then last year, without any instruction or even suggestions from the Legislature, the board lowered the standards for all of those scholarships. So today, a 90 is an “A,” and an 80 is a “B” — which guarantees some sort of merit scholarship.
It would have been easy to keep the standards for scholarships where they were, that is, to make some changes in order to maintain the status quo. Today, raising the bar back to where it had been for a decade and a half means taking something away from students — and parents — who believe they have already earned it.
That’s a much more difficult thing to do. But it’s what lawmakers need to do.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.