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The General Assembly: stay tuned

Posted: January 17, 2014 9:26 a.m.
Updated: January 20, 2014 5:00 a.m.

I have some of my most interesting conversations with community members in informal settings like the grocery store, the Farmers Market, convenience store gas pumps and church. One Saturday this past summer while I was eyeing some Silver Queen corn at the Farmers Market, a lady I’ve known since I moved here asked me why I spend so much time talking about politics and legislation.

It’s a reasonable question. I told her that what happens through the political process, especially at the state level, has immense impact on our classrooms. Across our country, it is typical for funding (or lack thereof), mandates (very often unfunded) and numerous other areas to be determined in large part by the state legislature. This is particularly true in our state because the South Carolina Constitution places so much power in the hands of the General Assembly. Given that so much happens so quickly during a legislative session, it’s nearly impossible for the average citizen to follow it all. When the school year starts, however, our General Assembly’s impact becomes very evident. I would remind folks that the $30 million-plus in cuts our schools have absorbed since 2008 have been state cuts.

With all this said, I wanted to talk about what I see as priority education issues as the South Carolina General Assembly reconvenes.                


The budget will, as always, be the major challenge for this year’s General Assembly. At a legislative conference I attended recently, I heard that education, human services and roads will dominate the discussion. All of these are legitimate needs, mostly due to long-term neglect. In terms of funding for K-12 education, it is important to understand that the Base Student Cost (BSC) currently sits almost $700 below what is required by law. In Kershaw County, this translates into about $5.7 million. If the BSC was returned to the legally required level, our district could restore just about everything that has been cut since 2008. (You may ask how the General Assembly can avoid following its own laws. There’s a curious mechanism called a “proviso,” which allows legislators to ignore previously passed laws.)

Fixing Act 388

Since Act 388 was passed, public school finance in this state has been a disaster area. Act 388 is the third rail of South Carolina politics; politicians aren’t going to touch it directly. A coalition of business and school finance people has developed a meaningful school finance proposal that would work within the constraints of Act 388. The legislation, entitled the South Carolina Jobs, Education, and Tax Act (SCJET) would provide equitable funding for schools across the state -- regardless of the demographics of the region -- and also provide over $600 million in tax breaks for business.

The sticking point may be that funding this legislation would require implementing at least some of the recommendations of the Tax Realignment (TRAC) Commission, which was convened by the General Assembly in 2009 in response to the fact that our state exempts so many areas from the sales tax. (My personal favorite is the fact that the sales tax on a used 2005 Chevy and a Lear Jet are the same. Really.) These exemptions result in a loss of over $2.4 billion (that’s billion) in yearly revenue. Passing SCJET will require some political gumption, which isn’t usually in large supply in Columbia. However, virtually no one believes that Act 388 has worked. Rather than continuing to live with something this bad, maybe it’s time to try to fix it.


I’ll seriously bet that expanded voucher legislation will be on the table. This legislation seeks to provide public financial support to private schools without anywhere near the accountability and transparency required of public schools. No PASS tests. No EOC tests. No HSAP tests. No Report Cards. No “Value-Added” teacher evaluation. No requirement to comply with the Freedom of Information Act or online financial transparency. No requirement for “highly qualified” staff. What a deal.

While this legislation is perennially sold as an alternative for students attending “failing public schools” (voucher proponents can say this like it’s one word…), the legislation never includes any provision to track how many such students would be served in private schools or how their performance would compare to their public school peers. If we’re going to go down this road again, and I’m sure New York millionaire and voucher Sugar Daddy Howard Rich is going to spend megabucks to grease the wheels, can the legislation at least include meaningful accountability? I won’t hold my breath.

Report Cards and School Calendars

Finally, our state has a federal report card and a state report card, each of which measures schools and school districts in very different ways. The whole thing is inefficient and confusing to parents and the public. It doesn’t need to be. It seems like we could come up with one report card that meets everyone’s needs.

One more thing … it would be nice for local school boards to be given the latitude to make decisions about school calendars. I think people here in Kershaw County would like for the first semester to end by Christmas. It would certainly make a lot more sense instructionally, but this isn’t possible under state law. Local flexibility on school calendars seems more than reasonable. How about it?

The next several months in Columbia should be interesting. Stay tuned…


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