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Morgan: Gov. Haleys education proposals
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A few weeks back, superintendents in our state were invited by Gov. Nikki Haley to hear a briefing on her education budget initiatives, which she will ask the General Assembly to consider during its current session. Over the past couple of years, Gov. Haley has taken an increasingly “hands-on” approach to education. This is certainly a positive change from her predecessor. 

Superintendent of education

Gov. Haley is proposing voters have the opportunity in November to decide if the state superintendent of education should be appointed by the Governor after January 2019. Gov. Haley believes the current structure results in a lack of coordination and overall efficiency. Thirty-eight states currently give their governors the authority to appoint the state superintendent. 

I worked under this kind of structure in Virginia, and I did find it more effective to have someone overseeing education who was in tune with the governor’s vision for the state. This structure also led to the governor having more legitimate accountability for education. As it stands now in our state, the governor can simply throw up his or her hands and blame the superintendent of education. Not especially productive.

Funding

Gov. Haley has proposed additional funding for technology, instructional materials, bus driver salaries and charter schools. The technology funding will help our district to continue to address networking and connectivity issues, especially in our older buildings. The district’s technology staff has done an exemplary job of leveraging state funding with federal E-rate funding to improve connectivity. The funding for bus driver salaries is also especially welcome and needed. 

That said, I was quite disappointed that Gov. Haley only proposed an $80 increase in Base Student Cost (BSC), a major funding stream for school districts. Our state currently funds BSC at a level $500 below the legal requirement, a requirement legislators dodge through a curious mechanism called a budget proviso. (Don’t get me started on the legislative branch not following its own laws.)

Restoring the BSC to the legally-required level would mean approximately $5 million for Kershaw County. With $5 million, we could restore just about every program and position cut during the economic downturn and restore salaries to where they need to be for us to be competitive again. I am hopeful that the General Assembly will consider restoring BSC with some of the $1.3 billion in projected new revenue. 

Facility needs in rural districts

One of the major issues in the Abbeville educational disparity lawsuit was the grossly inadequate state of school facilities in poor, rural districts. Gov. Haley is proposing to use 1 percent of the state’s General Bond debt to provide grants to these districts to upgrade facilities in amounts no larger than $200 million. A committee that includes the governor, the chairs of the House and Senate education committees, the superintendent of education and the state director of administration would award these grants. A condition for districts to receive these funds would be compliance with a set of specific building standards and design features established by the state.

This proposal provides a practical and reasonable approach to solving a key issue in the Abbeville disparity lawsuit and a legitimate problem which exists in poor rural districts which do not have the tax base necessary to make reasonable upgrades to facilities. Kershaw County would probably not be eligible for these funds, although that remains to be seen. 

Recruiting and retaining teachers in rural districts

A nagging long-term problem in our state has been attracting and retaining quality teachers in rural districts. Gov. Haley is proposing the state pay college tuition for students who commit to teach in these districts based on two years of teaching for every year of tuition paid by the state. She is also proposing state repayment of student loans or subsidizing graduate work for current teachers based on the same kind of time commitment to work in a rural district. 

This is an innovative approach to solving a longstanding problem. My concern is the proposal, while giving strong and needed focus to the future, does not adequately attend to the present, to the people already working in our classrooms. The governor’s proposal does not address the thousands of teachers in our state, including in Kershaw County, who absorbed two years of salary freezes because of the huge cuts in state funding which has not yet been restored. While the future is certainly important, loyalty to and consideration of people already in place is at least equally as important. 

This is why attention to restoring BSC is so critical and why I am disappointed the governor’s proposals do not begin to adequately address this area.

Decreasing local autonomy

During the past couple of years, as our state has emerged from the recession, education funding initiatives coming from the governor and the General Assembly have focused on prescriptive “one size fits all” approaches, funding tied to specific purposes and programs determined in Columbia. Elementary reading coaches are a good example. While this initiative has produced some very positive results, I’m not sure this is the direction I’d want to go in every one of our schools because every school is different and has different needs.

There seems to be less and less emphasis on local autonomy and local solutions. I don’t believe this is a good thing. However, it is difficult for politicians to resist the temptation to target funding to programs they can point to when they are up for reelection. Does make for good stump speech material, though.