No one is arguing that real reform isn’t needed for South Carolina schools, but despite the abject nature of some of the state’s rural school districts, the picture of education here is probably not as dire as you would be led to believe.

So many studies have the Palmetto State bringing up the rear with Mississippi, but South Carolina has lifted itself out of the doghouse of standardized testing statistics in recent years – the state is now roughly in the middle third in the nation. That’s not head of the class, but we’re not standing in the corner with a dunce cap, either. It was even better before we cut $700 million from education during the recession, which was more than any other state. Our Nation’s Report Card average ranking was 32nd in 2005, and we now spend only 76 cents for every dollar that we spent on our kids then.

More dollars are not the sole answer to improving education, of course, but they probably don’t hurt.

Even so, schools do a pretty fair job of teaching to the extremes. The smarter kids excel and the kids falling behind are given ample help to pull themselves back to the middle. But it is that expansive middle that most likely needs more attention.

How to make up ground in this critical area so far has been elusive.

And the latest fight with Common Core Standards gives further illustration to the notion that those fighting for education in this state seem to know what they don’t want more than what they think would actually work.

This particular standoff can be traced to 2001, when the federal government reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or ESEA – better known as the No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation set goals and gave incentives for performance but dictated an ever-raising bar, which educators, administrators and people on every end of the political spectrum said was inherently flawed.

So, a waiver system was created by which states could submit their own plans for teacher, school and district accountability and progress. South Carolina’s two-year waiver was approved in July 2012. To date, 41 other states have had theirs approved, too.

A second federal directive was the offer for states to claim Race To The Top grant money as part of the stimulus package on the condition that they adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments for students. Many states, including South Carolina, adopted the standards in order to compete for the funds.

But ultimately State Education Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais declined to put in a request for the money once he was in office in 2011, saying he was leery of the federal strings attached and putting the state on the hook for more money down the road.

But the No Child Left Behind waiver required states to adopt commonly held standards, so South Carolina’s previous adoption of CCS fit the bill.

This is where the pushback is coming in. Even though it wasn’t the federal government that created or directly demanded the adoption of Common Core Standards, critics say the U.S. Department of Education lulled states to sleep with the promise of money and freedom from ESEA. Forced to make a decision, they say Common Core wasn’t properly vetted by states, which is why they want the state out of the Common Core Standard business.

Let’s face it: No matter what plan the U.S. government puts forward, some groups will meet it with resentment because it contains that dreaded four-letter word: feds.

We get it. Any federal guidelines are likely to have the government’s overly objective fingerprints all over them. But what’s the alternative? We’re not sure ourselves, and we’ve yet to hear anything else remotely viable. If Common Core fails here, then the state’s ESEA waiver disappears, which puts us back in No Child’s sinking boat.

So what would the Common Core opponents do to improve education here?

Figure out that eternal problem, we suspect, and the standards will take care of themselves. It is easier said than done, of course.

A settlement – notice we didn’t say solution – will come out of either Columbia or Washington some time next year. Our hope is that this does not wane the focus of the state’s teachers, who continue to serve our children well under intensely challenging conditions.