Cindi Ross Scoppe

Henry McMaster is a smart, responsible governor — when he isn’t pandering

“Poverty is the enemy of education”: McMaster weighs in on SC schools

During the State of the State address, Gov. McMaster talks about consolidating SC schools to drive down costs.
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During the State of the State address, Gov. McMaster talks about consolidating SC schools to drive down costs.

ONE OF THE things that impressed me about Henry McMaster over the years — when he was attorney general, when he was out of office, when he was lieutenant governor — was his interest in making sure all kids in our state get a decent education. Many politicians pay lip service to this idea, but far too few truly understand how essential it is to our state’s success, much less demonstrate a genuine desire to figure out how to make it happen. In years of emails and phone conversations and face-to-face conversations, Mr. McMaster has displayed both.

So it was no surprise that the best part of his first State of the State address was the way he framed public education. He could have been channeling so many teachers when he talked about the role poverty and parents play in how well children do in school. “Poverty,” he said, “is the enemy of education; some of our children, through no fault of their own, live in circumstances so bleak that intellectual stimulation and learning are but fleeting experiences. Ultimately, gainful employment of the parents or adults in the home offers the surest deliverance of the child into educated society.”

But he didn’t use that as an excuse for failure, noting instead that: “Good teachers and good principals clearly are the key to success. There is rarely a child who will not or cannot be taught. The key is not trying to pour knowledge in, but rather opening eyes and imaginations and letting eagerness and fascination out. A good teacher can do this.”

And while he argued that “recruiting new jobs and economic investment will do more to improve educational opportunity than simply sending money from Columbia,” he came right back to financial realities, noting that “students must have the resources to reach their full potential.”

As a governor whom voters are still trying to figure out, the address to the Legislature last week gave Mr. McMaster a handy way to put all of his priorities in one place.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Mr. McMaster has been an advocate for decades of spending tax money on private schools. But unlike his predecessors, he hasn’t pushed hard on that front, and he didn’t focus on it in the speech. What he talked about instead was the need for governors to appoint the education superintendent and the Supreme Court’s wise counsel to stop squandering money on duplication in tiny little school districts — a problem that too few elected officials are willing to tackle.

It was a useful reminder of how passionate Mr. McMaster has been about protecting South Carolina’s environment, which has put him at odds with many in his party.

He also showed off his biggest policy difference with his predecessor, speaking at length about how the Trump administration’s plan to allow oil exploration off our coast is “incompatible with everything we have and do on our coast.” We’ll see how useful his opposition is, but it was a useful reminder of how passionate Mr. McMaster has been — at least since I met him, back in 1990 — about protecting South Carolina’s environment, which has put him at odds with many in his party.

And even as critics continue to imply guilt by his association with political consultant Richard Quinn, he reminded us how, five years ago, it was Mr. McMaster, along with fellow former Attorney General Travis Medlock, who assembled the smartest and most sweeping proposal to overhaul our ethics law. In the speech, he called on lawmakers to pass one of its most important unfulfilled recommendations: giving the Ethics Commission more tools to spot violations.

Unfortunately, he also reminded us how far he has been willing to go with his pandering to keep up with most irresponsible charges of his gubernatorial challengers. There he was demanding, again, that cities and counties jump through hoops to prove they aren’t “sanctuary cities” — although there is absolutely no reason to think any of them are. And doubling down on his demand that the Legislature make SCE&G pick up the entire cost of the nuclear debacle, and repay ratepayers the $1.9 billion we’ve already paid — even though he understands constitutional law well enough to know that the courts almost certainly would throw out such a plan.

As uplifting as his comments were about education, they were undermined by the cold, hard numbers of his state budget proposal.

And then, of course, there was his tax proposal, which he introduced with the non sequitur about how federal tax cuts increased the need for state tax cuts .

As uplifting as his comments were about education, they were undermined by the cold, hard numbers of his state budget proposal. Although he bragged about his proposal to add $25 million to the “base student cost” — which pays mainly for teacher salaries — the fact is that this would come out to only an additional $10 per student. Which leaves the total still $580 per student less than state law requires. Requires.

I don’t expect anyone to make up that deficit in one year, but the governor’s plan doesn’t even move us in that direction, since the funding requirement goes up each year, based on inflation. And you don’t get to brag about how well you’re doing under that law when you’re not.

Mr. McMaster easily could have cut that $580-per-student deficit by $70 instead of just $10 by leaving out the income tax cuts. And that would have freed up more money in each of the next four years, when he proposes to phase in larger tax cuts. It also would have demonstrated that he understands that one way economic prosperity produces better-educated children is by helping provide those “Good teachers and good principals” — rather than cutting taxes even more.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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