Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A few corrections on SC Gov Nikki Haley’s State of the State address

SC Gov. Nikki Haley delivers her sixth State of the State address.
SC Gov. Nikki Haley delivers her sixth State of the State address. AP

GOV. NIKKI Haley had a lot of familiar items on her State of the State brag list last week:

▪ “Number one in foreign investment.”

▪ “The number one exporter of tires.”

▪ “One of the fastest growing economies on the East Coast.”

▪ “Thanks to your support, we changed the funding formula so that no one can ever say again that we educate children based solely on where they are born and raised.”

Huh?

Did I mishear that? Did I misunderstand the change the Legislature made to the state’s basic education funding formula a couple of years ago? Did the Supreme Court misunderstand it, when it continued to insist that the state was unconstitutionally failing to adequately educate children … based on where they are born and raised?

I checked with a handful of legislators on Thursday, and while some had missed that line, one leading education advocate who is otherwise enthusiastic about Gov. Haley’s public education agenda told me it jumped out at him. Ridiculous, he said.

For all the accomplishments the governor can take credit for and all the smart initiatives she proposed, there were a handful of dissonant chords in her annual address. Claims that were at best misleading. If I’m going to praise her for her smart proposals, I feel obliged to point out those problem notes.

The problem with her schools claim isn’t that lawmakers didn’t go along with her plan to add a poverty weighting to the funding formula — they did, and it was a long-overdue change. The problem is that she grossly overstated the effect of that change — a problem that was compounded by her decision to appropriate the language of the legal and political argument that children in poor school districts still aren’t receiving a decent education.

When you say “no one can ever say again that we educate children based solely on where they are born and raised,” you’re saying the problem has been solved. It hasn’t been, as the governor herself implicitly acknowledged with her education proposals — particularly the plan to recruit teachers to the Corridor of Shame.

As important as it was for the state to officially acknowledge that it costs more to educate poor children than their better-off peers, simply adding that weighting didn’t provide enough money to the poorest districts to address that part of the problem.

Of course, that’s not the only reason changing the funding formula didn’t fix those districts, and by suggesting that it did, or even could, the governor embraced the very “money is the solution” argument that she and other Republicans rightly reject. Money is a problem, but all the money in the world won’t get poor children educated until we make changes in governance that will result in good teachers being willing and able to move to and remain in those schools.

The governor’s next off-key claim came in her quite reasonable argument that replacing dilapidated schools in the impoverished districts is more important than constructing more college buildings. “No one can look at the tuition hikes parents and college students have seen over the last decade,” she said, “and tell me that higher education doesn't have enough money.”

Perhaps she’s right that colleges have enough money, but her implication that they’ve gouged students is terribly misleading. The fact is that colleges have raised tuition as a direct result of the state defunding its colleges.

We’ve never adequately funded our colleges, and things only got worse after lawmakers decided that lottery scholarships were “college” funding, and scaled back on the actual funding to colleges.

But scholarships merely change the name on the check, not how much money colleges receive. So colleges had to choose between reducing quality and raising tuition; they raised tuition. During the recession, lawmakers cut funding more, and colleges raised tuition more.

The governor also presented a false impression when she rightly called out senators who have refused to pass legislation allowing an independent body to investigate their compliance with the state ethics law and requiring themselves to report the sources of their income.

“The Senate has refused to even vote on either,” she said. “Repeatedly.”

It’s true that the Senate never voted on those two items individually. But the Senate has voted on ethics reform, and all the versions it voted on included income disclosure. And in the crucial vote in February, GOP Sens. Hugh Leatherman and Luke Rankin, the most outspoken tea-party Republicans, and all the Democrats succeeded in passing an amendment that stripped independent oversight from the ethics bill.

Some Democrats said they supported independent oversight but weren’t willing to let other reforms die in order to get that. The senators who worked the hardest for reform were willing to let the bill die, because they feared that if they allowed it to pass without independent oversight, it would be decades before they’d get another chance.

That wasn’t the result Gov. Haley or I or any other reformers wanted, but it was a vote. And to deny that is not just wrong; it’s unwise for anyone who has any hopes of reviving ethics reform.

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

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