COLUMBIA- It was a packed house. Nearly every chair in the gymnasium was occupied, and the overflow crowd was seated on the bleachers. It wasn’t a concert or a basketball game that had filled the middle school gym in the heart of rural South Carolina.
It was the troubling state of public education that brought this diverse group of state lawmakers, industry leaders and community representatives together in the Dillon Middle School gym. And the crowd before them was struggling to listen to every word through the crackling microphones.
“It feels so good to see so many familiar faces; they’ve got a lot of interest in what we’re trying to do here,” said Rep. Jackie “Coach” Hayes, D-Dillon, athletic director for Dillon School District 4 and Dillon’s representative on the South Carolina Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force.
S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas had organized the task force to consider a better way to fund education in South Carolina so that less affluent, rural school systems such as Dillon 4 would not get left behind. At this second meeting nearly every seat was filled and the host county’s representative said he couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s all about leveling the playing field,” Hayes said.
Whether through adjusting millage rates, stimulating local industry bases or just outright providing more money, Hayes is adamant that the issue of equity is one that needs to be addressed immediately. That demand is rooted in decades of searching for a solution to the state’s education disparities.
Immediacy is the main concern of education advocates in South Carolina. The state Supreme Court, in a landmark November 2014 ruling, directed legislators to replace what S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal called a “fractured formula” and work with school districts to resolve the equity issue in public education “within a reasonable time.” After 22 years of legal dispute, some are wondering how long “a reasonable time” might take.
Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said that the legislation has been failing to deal with the equity issue for too long. “We put money and programs in place, but we don’t let them go long enough to see the changes,” she said.
Act 388, passed in 2006, altered the funding dynamics by moving from the property tax to sales tax and also shifted the tax burden to business property and vacation or rental homes.
“It created reliance on an unstable sales tax, and that came nowhere near to making up for the money lost by our schools,” Hampton said.
As for when the changes will happen, she said, “It’s not going to happen overnight, because we didn’t get where we are overnight.”
The call for progress in S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal’s decision in the Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina may be hampered by the phrasing of “reasonable time,” Melanie Barton, executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, said.
She worries that some lawmakers may bide their time before tackling a more equitable funding formula because Toal, who is 71, is set to retire later this year. Her likely successor, Justice Costa Pleicones, was among the two justices who dissented in the November 2014 decision. A new court could alter the legislature’s mandate in the Abbeville case and perhaps not be as determined to reformulate education funding, which now rests on the sales tax collections and a locality’s business property tax base.
Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor, warned the task force at their first meeting that the consequences of not acting would be dire. “If the issue of equity isn’t dealt with soon, then it may very well be another 20 years before we see any change,” he said.
While the tone at the second task force meeting was excitement, the first meeting left task force member David Longshore, former superintendent for Orangeburg County Consolidated School District 3, nervous. He agreed that it may take another two decades to fix education, but said, “It’s my hope that’s not going to happen.”
A two-decade dilemma
Longshore has been involved in the lawsuit since 1993, when 36 of the state’s then 91 school districts sued the state in an attempt to get adequate funding. It wasn’t until 1999 that, despite a dismissal in 1996, the state Supreme Court ruled that the constitution grants every child access to a “minimally adequate education.”
This definition has set the stage for the education reform debate, with controversy over whether minimal adequacy is a goal to strive for. “I disagree strongly, wholeheartedly, with this standard because I do not believe South Carolina believes in minimums,” said Lucas.
The documentary, “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools,” premiered in 2005, and re-ignited public interest in education reform. That same year, Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper, the same judge who dismissed the case in 1996, concluded a two-year nonjury trial. His decision represented a partial victory to both sides.
Cooper ordered the legislature to invest more in early childhood education, but ruled that teacher pay and buildings were adequate and safe. The legislature’s response to this decision was a limited full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program targeted to at-risk students in the plaintiff districts that began in 2006.
As the state Supreme Court heard further appeals starting in 2008, with a rehearing in 2012, the court finally came to a decision in November 2014. The majority sided with the districts, in favor of the districts, with Toal reaching back to the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning segregation to ground her thinking on the plight of the students harbored together in poorly performing schools.
“The measurable inputs and outputs show that the Defendants have failed to provide students in the Plaintiff Districts the requisite constitutional opportunity,” she wrote in her decision. “Inadequate transportation fails to convey children to school or home in a manner conducive to even minimal academic achievement. Students in the Plaintiff Districts receive instruction in many cases from a corps of unprepared teachers. Students in these districts are grouped by economic class into what amounts to no more than educational ghettos, rated by the Department of Education’s guidelines as substandard.”
Large percentages of the students in the Plaintiff Districts—over half in some instances—are unable to meet minimal benchmarks on standardized tests, but are nonetheless pushed through the system to “graduate.”
Toal directed legislators and school districts to work together to present a joint funding plan within that window of “a reasonable time.”
Overcoming low expectations
A plan is exactly what the education task force was brainstorming during their first meeting. They heard from established, well-respected South Carolina education experts, including former Gov. Richard “Dick” Riley and former Superintendents of Education Inez Tenenbaum and Barbara Nielson. They were offered advice on what areas of education need immediate addressing.
For Riley, creating equity in schools is about curating greater potential in students both in and outside of the classroom. “We must overcome the devastating effects of low expectations,” he said. Riley, who in 1984 ushered in comprehensive education reform with the passage of the Education Improvement Act, argued that schools should have a greater connection to local business communities, and provide more engaging after school and summer opportunities for students.
At the time of its passage in 1984, The EIA added a penny to the sales tax to pay for $60 million in teacher raises, $58 million for new buildings and $60 million for remedial programs, but the funds were distributed without regard to the wealth of a district.
Nielson echoed many of Riley’s points, and also said that simplifying the budget and creating a standard of teacher pay that is a set statewide percentage of administrative pay would help create more employment opportunity in poorer districts that have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers.
While the first task force meeting addressed broader concepts and solutions to big-picture issues, the second meeting detailed more specific programs and approaches to dealing with the equity crisis.
Helena Tiller, superintendent of Marlboro County School District, presented the framework for a solution that was written jointly by Riley, University of South Carolina Professor Emeritus Lorin Anderson and other education experts. The framework outlined ways to support local school’s long-term success goals, improve the quality of education in the state’s struggling districts and better prepare students for college.
As equity is the main concern for the task force, Tiller made sure to indicate that there is “no intention to diminish the state’s educational resources” from school districts that are more prosperous.
Another major topic of discussion at the second meeting was early childhood development and a research-based neurological approach to early education. Debbie Hyler, executive director at The School Foundation, explained that the first five years of a child’s life could determine how successful they may be throughout their education.
“Ninety percent of neural pathways develop before the age of five,” she said. “Children of poverty, by the age of three, have heard 30 million fewer words than a middle class child.”
Because of this, she said, there is a need for early intervention and engagement in early childhood education. “Waiting until a child reaches the age of four means we are ignoring these principles,” she said.
The task force was reminded time and again that the primary concern when it comes to education is the students. “Our students are behind other students when they enter the education system, but they should not stay there,” said Rep. Terry Alexander D-Florence. “For far too long, South Carolina has implemented piecemeal solutions,” he said. The problem of education equity isn’t going away, he said, and it’s time to finally address it holistically.