S.C. Statehouse Report
June 20, 2004
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/04.0620.education.htm


COMMENTARY
State faces educational wake-up call
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JUNE 20, 2004 – There’s a relatively painless and easy way to highlight how South Carolina has two educational systems - - one that provides students in growing counties with great opportunities and another in poorer counties that fails students and taxpayers.

All you have to do is ask each of the lawyers and witnesses in a Manning school funding fairness trial whether they’d rather send their kids and grandchildren to schools in Greenville or Columbia versus schools in Dillon or Allendale counties.

It’s a no-brainer. If they told the truth, they’d pick the better school districts without flinching.

But the legal system doesn’t work that way. So the off-and-on funding trial continues. After 11 months of testimony in Manning, the case appears to be winding down as the defense is calling witnesses following testimony by dozens of experts, officials, superintendents and teachers for the eight poor school districts suing the state.

At the heart of the issue is the districts’ contention that the state has failed to provided adequate funding to allow local schools to provide a “minimum adequate education” to students. Unlike wealthier areas, property values in these areas aren’t high enough to provide enough tax money to give real educational opportunities to children. So, they fall behind.

The state, however, counters lawmakers have boosted funds to education almost $1 billion over the last 10 years, including extra help for at-risk schools. Defense lawyers say the state has met its responsibility to provide the opportunity for a “minimum adequate education,” and it is only a goal to provide students with the best education possible. In essence, while being poor may be linked to lower educational achievement, the state didn’t cause folks to be poor.

Over the course of the long trial, inequities among schools in South Carolina have been bared, as highlighted in a review of plaintiff testimony. Superintendents and teachers painted pictures of crumbling schools without sufficient supplies that can’t retain or attract the high-quality teachers needed by poor students to narrow educational achievement gaps.

ALSO THIS WEEK

McLEMORE'S WORLD: Father's Day

FEEDBACK: Letters on impact fees, environmental health

SCORECARD: Winners and losers of the past week

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Economists described how South Carolina residents were taxed below the national average and rural residents pay a disproportionate share of taxes. Businessmen testified how rural schools weren’t doing their jobs in preparing students for the work force. A couple of senior state senators said the state wasn’t funding education as well as it should.

A study released this week by the state Education Oversight Committee furnished more ammunition. It said despite years of talk about closing the education gap between black and white students and between those who live in poor and wealthier districts, the gap was widening. And while the report said there were more schools in which black and/or poor students were excelling in at least one subject, EOC Director JoAnne Anderson told media the report should be considered a “code red” wake-up call for the state.

Earlier this year, Anderson testified at the trial that current student funding needs in South Carolina were $1 billion below the national median. She said the state needed to invest “hundreds of millions” of dollars to overhaul public schools to make them work, particularly in rural areas.

As Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, said of the trial in his hometown, the result will likely have a sweeping impact in South Carolina. If the state wins, the status quo will be upheld and the state’s two school systems will be perpetuated.

But if the trial results in a victory for the plaintiffs from Allendale, Dillon, Florence, Hampton, Lee, Jasper, Marion and Orangeburg counties, sweeping changes could be ahead caused by increased taxes to fund education or decreased services in other state agencies to pay for educational remedies.

The magnitude of the problem faced by the state is huge based on the number of poor students in the state. Currently, some 49 percent of South Carolina’s students, or 335,000 kids, are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches based on federal poverty guidelines. Free lunches are available to students in families that earn less than 130 percent of poverty ($24,505 for a family of four) and reduced-price lunches are available to those that earn less than 185 percent of poverty ($34,873 for a family of four).

If the state spent just $100 more every year to help educate every poor student, it would have to find an extra $33.5 million. Spending $1,000 per student: $335 million.

One way or another, South Carolina faces a financial wake-up call if it really wants to generate real educational opportunity for her children. Be ready for it.

McLEMORE'S WORLD
6/20: Father's Day

This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore:

FEEDBACK

6/15: State needs more impact fees

To the editor:

This state needs to amend the present developer impact fee legislation so as to allow communities, especially in high-growth coastal communities such as Horry County, to impose it on all new construction in a way that it helps to supplement all services, including public education, that growth creates.

Its imposition would help eliminate the manipulation taking place with property tax versus sales tax as a means of financint the public's necessities. Sales tax and/or caps on residential/commercial property now before our governor for his signature is definitely not the way to go. Both merely pass the long term debt responsibility down to the lowest wage earner or retiree on a fixed income and owning little if any property.

Real property owners should take the bitter with the sweet. Appreciating property is a wonderful investment, but a portion of property tax is deductible. In addition, its sale can return a pleasing profit, but with those benefits come higher property taxes.

-- Bob Logan, president, We the People of Horry County

6/13: Environmental and economic health are connected

To the editor:

I read with great interest your editorial (Commentary, 6/13) on the report generated by the Council on Coastal Futures in Sunday's Florence Morning News. I would be very interested in the actual report and how to acquire a copy.

(Editor's note: If you want a copy of the report, please send an email to feedback@statehousereport.com and we'll send you a copy.)

Our grass roots group in Florence has been campaigning for the same protection of our only natural resource Jeffries Creek, which is threatened by degradation from rapid commercial sprawl of big box development. We have been fighting more than 16 months to protect this watershed from the storm water pollution of a planned SuperCenter and other big box developments.

The connection between environmental health and economic health is one we have been stressing, but thus far has fallen on deaf ears. Thank you so much for your insightful and lucid editorial.

-- Carolyn Jebaily, Chair, Responsible Economic Development, Florence, S.C.


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SOUTH CAROLINA SCORECARD

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Liberty Fellows. Congratulations to the first leadership class of Liberty Fellows -- budding SC leaders who will engage in community projects and mentorships over two years. Part of the first class: Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, and Speaker Pro Tem Doug Smith.

Southern Baptists. Hats off to delegates to the Southern Baptist convention who voted down a dumb South Carolina resolution to encourage Baptists to take their kids out of public schools.

State Dems. For a change, state Democrats won a special election -- this time in Kershaw County where Laurie Slade Funderburk won the House seat vacated by now-Sen. Vincent Sheheen. It's about time.

Thumbs down

Shealyizing. Thumbs down to more questionable campaign tactics by GOP strategist Rod Shealy. This time, he got a former Democratic House member to weigh in with a slimy letter on behalf of Sen. John Kuhn against former Rep. Chip Campsen, who face each other in a Tuesday runoff. More.

Carolina Investors backers. People who trusted Carolina Investors will get only 15 cents on the dollar on their investment. The settlement was good for investors, who expected nothing, but it's ashamed they got taken advantage of.

Dr. Chris Hawk. Thumbs down to an idea by Dr. Chris Hawk of Charleston, who tried to get the American Medical Convention to sanction no treatment for litigation lawyers as long as tort reforms are unpassed. Seems like a blatant violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Doctor, heal thyself.


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