Addressing public education was a top issue during the 2019 legislative session, and will remain a priority when the General Assembly reconvenes next year. Earlier this year, the House passed an education omnibus bill, while the Senate Education Committee has been working on a companion bill that is still moving through the subcommittee process.
Lawmakers also increased education spending in the FY 2019-20 budget, much of which will fund teacher raises and pension obligations, and inserted several policies from the omnibus legislation as budget provisos.
However, these efforts at reform fail to address the fundamental issues plaguing South Carolina’s schools. Instead, lawmakers’ solutions appear focused on improving “workforce development” to assist in the state’s economic development goals – not improving the education system itself.
The workforce delivery system
Lawmakers’ reform bills approach education as a “workforce delivery system,” (a term used in last year’s proposed data warehouse) in which schools are less about educating students, and more about supplying businesses with qualified workers.
To track the progress of students as they move through the “education and workforce pipeline,” the House bill creates a “Special Council on Revitalizing Education.” The committee would be comprised mostly of legislative appointees and would track reading and math scores, high school graduation rates, college enrollment, and job attainment figures. It even goes so far as to track the number of South Carolina residents, up to age 65, who have college degrees or received certain work certification. (It should be noted that the committee was originally called the “Zero to Twenty Committee,” presumably named after the ages of students it would track.)
This mission is eerily similar to that of another unaccountable state entity, the Coordinating Council for Workforce Development, which focuses on the “state’s ability to prepare and train workers to meet current and future workforce needs.” Both the House and Senate bills would give this council input into which programs of study are offered to students.
The bills would also create a “career pathways” system that begins as early as kindergarten. Under this system, a number of state agencies, such as the Department of Education, Department of Commerce and Department of Employment and Workforce would align the k-12 education system with state and regional “workforce needs,” among other things. And how would such workforce needs be determined? According to both bills, that would be decided by the Department of Commerce. However, Commerce is not an education agency, and has a statutory mission to prioritize job growth, not what’s best for South Carolina’s students.
Even the way school districts form high school curricula would be affected. Both bills ditch instruction based on “fostering artistic creativity” and “critical thinking” in favor of curricula explicitly designed to meet workforce needs.
Other changes to the educational system
Lawmakers’ proposals also add significant mandates and regulations to the “Read to Succeed” program, micromanaging the reading coach hiring process by mandating stricter education qualifications and a minimum of three years experience. It would also require the Department of Education to screen and approve reading coach candidates in lower performing districts, who would undergo additional professional development training (part of this policy was also included in the budget).
Even worse, every future elementary school teacher would have to pass a new “rigorous test” on reading instruction and “data-based decision making principles”. The bills do, however, strike a current prohibition on actual teaching assignments for reading coaches.
Other education “fixes” include:
Adding a student and teacher to serve as non-voting members on the State Board of Education
School district consolidation for school districts with (1) less than 1,000 students and (2) where more than half of the students are severely underperforming
Implementing new literacy testing for grades K – 3, while removing social studies tests for grades 3 – 8 and removing a high school history course requirement (similar testing changes were included in this year’s budget as well)
Allowing the State Superintendent to take over chronically failing schools, including firing and hiring school personnel. Alternatively, the school could be handed over to a public or non-profit entity to manage; closed and restarted under a charter school authorizer or a “non-profit educational management organization;” or even closed permanently. The final decision regarding which method would be best, however, would rest with the State Board of Education, not the Superintendent.
The Senate version offers the Palmetto Fellows Scholarship to students attending two-year institutions in exchange for raising scholarship requirements
What education reform should look like
True reform for South Carolina’s public schools must accomplish three things: fix the funding formula, expand school choice and make the education system accountable to the people through the governor.
Revise the funding formula: South Carolina’s decades-old education funding formula is long overdue for change. The current model is burdened by legislative mandates that distract from core services and is based on outdated assumptions. This is evident from the school system’s failure to see any real improvement over time, despite an increase in education funding each year. The Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office released a report recommending changes to education funding this past May, but no official legislative action has been taken.
Expand school choice: There are also limited options for parents who wish for more educational flexibility. South Carolina’s charter school and magnet school programs provide options for some parents in the counties where these schools have opened, and a tax credit scholarship program allows parents of special needs children a wider variety of educational choices. But in cases where these are not feasible options, children are trapped in the existing school system regardless of the quality of the local school unless outside private resources allow parents to explore alternatives such as private education or homeschooling.
Make the education system accountable: Lastly, the state’s most powerful education bodies are devoid of accountability. The State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) are controlled almost entirely by lawmakers (who elect 16 of 17 state board members, and comprise/select 14 of 18 EOC members). This makes it very difficult for citizens to hold anyone accountable for poor education policies. The third body – the Department of Education – is led by the citizen-elected Superintendent of Education, but has considerably less decision-making authority.
Unfortunately, the proposed solutions fail to meaningfully address these issues. Instead, they would increase spending, add new testing, tighten regulations for educators, and treat schools as a means to bolster the state’s workforce– not educate students.