COLUMN: Haley steps up to tackle education issues

  • Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 1:03 a.m.

COLUMBIA — It didn’t take long for Democrats to trash Gov. Nikki Haley’s invitation in her State of the State address to have “a conversation” about how to provide as good an education for children in poor school districts as for those in better-off districts.

We’ve been having that conversation for years, they huffed. We need action, not more conversation, they insisted.

And it’s true: Democrats have been having that conversation, and a few Republicans too. But outside the cloistered confines of the Senate Education Committee, Democrats and Republicans have not been having that conversation together. We as a state haven’t had that conversation.

When Gov. Haley said you can’t have a great state until all areas have the ability to be great, when she said that poor districts don’t have the tax base to adequately support the schools, she was saying things that a lot of South Carolinians – even a lot of legislators – don’t recognize.

When she told editorial writers earlier in the day that urban parents understandably don’t want to give up what their kids have but that “what I want them to understand is those kids in Bamberg deserve everything we have,” she knew that was a foreign concept for many South Carolinians.

When she said that the conversation about how to help those kids in Bamberg County without taking away from the kids in Lexington County “has always been missing, and it’s always been missing because everybody gets their back up” when the subject is broached, she wasn’t hallucinating.

The problem is twofold: Lexington, Richland and other urban counties have strong property tax bases, so they can supplement state funds to buy the education that parents there demand. And poor kids start school behind their wealthier peers, and it takes better teachers and more work to get them up to speed. The task is even tougher when you have a school full of poor kids than when you have a few poor kids scattered among middle-class kids, and our rural schools are full of poor kids.

So rural schools need more, and they have less. We send extra state money to those schools, but it’s not enough to make up for the difference. That is the issue of the school equity lawsuit that has been languishing in our courts for two decades. Some legislators say they want to fix this, but as soon as people start putting numbers on paper, the conversation breaks down.

No governor I’ve known has forced this issue. No governor has said, my kids go to great public schools, “but let’s be honest in this conversation: What I’m describing is not what schools are like in all parts of our state.”

Gov. Haley talked to editorial writers at length about the state’s “obligation” to provide for kids in poor districts, about how “we can’t say with an honest heart” that funding schools through property taxes is good enough.

She recalled that when she went to Bamberg to give her anti-bullying speech, “they couldn’t even play my video” because they didn’t have the equipment.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘They don’t deserve to be walking through puddles of water,’” she said of children attending schools in South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame.

The governor’s critics are right when they say we need action. But they’re disingenuous to imply that there’s an obvious solution.

Yes, those poor districts need more money, for both operations and facilities. They also need better leadership.

But while some Democrats are happy to talk about raising taxes, nobody in either party wants to touch the problem of school boards who treat the school district like a political-patronage factory, or superintendents who aren’t creative or energetic enough, or principals who can’t get rid of substandard teachers (particularly the one whose brother-in-law is on the school board) and don’t have the flexibility or resources to lure the best teachers to communities where most professionals don’t want to live.

And even if we addressed those problems, and even if Republicans agreed to raise taxes, it’s not obvious how we ought to distribute more money. What’s both smart and fair – and politically possible.

The day after the State of the State, senators from Charleston and Beaufort were warning that we’d better not get so focused on the Corridor of Shame that we leave out their schools – schools that don’t get a lot of state money because they have such wealthy tax bases.

I don’t know whether this will go anywhere. The governor hasn’t identified any steps beyond having legislative education leaders over to the mansion for breakfast to plan a strategy.

But I do know this: We have a Republican governor who was willing to use her highest-profile policy platform for a call to action on one of the most crucial problems facing our state. A problem that Republicans don’t like to talk about. A problem every one of us has only paid lip service to – if that – for years.

If we don’t give her the benefit of the doubt, if we don’t accept her outstretched hand, then we might as well just admit we’re never going to solve this problem. And shame on us.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.

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