Feb. 27 -- Regular readers of this space know that I have basically two articles of faith about South Carolina -- and, recently, they both came together in one joyous moment.
The first is, “If we don’t fix education in South Carolina, nothing else really matters.” After the physical safety of our citizens, nothing is more important than this, nothing. Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of times -- in speeches, in columns and in everyday conversations -- this has been my mantra for so long that I don’t even know where the maxim came from. I doubt if it was original with me; and I doubt that anyone has said it more than me.
The second is, “While I breathe, I hope.” This is our state motto, but even more than that, it’s my personal motto. It is the most optimistic, aspirational, determined, and resolute phrase that I know. It describes who we are as South Carolinians. In a state which has had such enormous triumphs as well as such horrid tragedies, these five simple words embody the spirit of our state and our people.
Recently, these two came together, and it may have been the beginning of what could be the most important events in this state’s history for a generation, maybe longer.
The House Education Reform Task Force had their first meeting to begin to formulate a legislative response to the S.C. Supreme Court’s decision in the Abbeville case. For those who have not been paying attention, the Abbeville case was a suit brought 21 years ago by students in the 33 poorest school districts to compel the state to provide at least the “minimally adequate” standard of education that the State Supreme Court has found they are entitled to. A few months ago, the court ruled in favor of the districts but did not say what reforms were needed or when they had to be implemented.
For those of us who have watched the S.C. legislature do the wrong things for the wrong reasons to benefit the wrong people for such a long time -- there was some sense that the same old forces of politics as usual would have their way again and nothing meaningful would happen.
All that changed when the new Speaker of the House Jay Lucas opened the week with a little bit of family history and a bold challenge. What he said was so striking, so personal and so bold, his statement deserves to be repeated at length:
“My grandfather had a sixth grade education and worked at the mill…Years later, my father chose a different path, becoming the first member of his family to receive a high school diploma. He believed in the power of education so strongly he enlisted in the Army and fought in Korea, specifically to receive GI benefits to make his dream of going to college a reality. The day I was born, my father -- at 25 years old -- received a college diploma. This lesson was not lost on me… Now, here I stand as the Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, a single generation removed from my grandfather, who never imagined how much four years of public high school would mean to his son and grandson.”
And then, he gave an astounding charge to the members of the Task Force: “Hacking away at ineffective policy will only yield minimally adequate results… Instead, focus on irrigating the desert. Focus on achieving what others think cannot be achieved…”
And then to top even this, he set them a goal: to make our public schools “competitive on a national scale.”
From minimally adequate to nationally competitive -- think about that for a minute.
I was shocked -- I still am.
Lucas is not just some insignificant, powerless legislator but the Speaker of the House. And here he was in his first significant action calling on the legislature -- especially his fellow Republicans who hold all the power -- to go beyond merely fixing “minimally adequate” to creating a nationally competitive public education system.
I don’t think I have ever met Jay Lucas and I know that I’ve never had a serious conversation with him about education or anything else. But I’d like to. And if I do get to talk with him, I’ll first congratulate him and then tell him that what he said, and the goal that he has set, are perhaps the most important words and goals heard in the state capital in a generation … and that’s coming from a committed Democrat.
If he really believes what he says, and there is no reason to doubt him, and he’s actually able to deliver -- he will go down as the greatest Speaker in the history of South Carolina. And I genuinely hope he does.
Because if we don’t fix education in South Carolina, nothing else really matters.
And while I breathe, I hope.
(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)