COLUMBIA -- South Carolina must find a way to obtain and allocate the funds to provide a school system that will meet the needs of the 21st century, State Superintendent Dr. Jim Rex said Thursday. Addressing education writers at a State Department of Education workshop, the superintendent reiterated from earlier this week his call for a new, independent commission to develop a plan, such as a minimum state millage "that would level the playing field, so that it wouldn't matter where a student was born." A total of 53 percent of students in grades K-12 now qualify economically for free and reduced lunch fees, Rex said. "Now is the time to reform our antiquated tax system and fund public education in a much different way," he said. "We're suggested a more transparent system in which the funding follows the student." Rex is also trying again with his school choice proposal to the S.C. General Assembly that came close to passage two years ago. This effort focuses primarily on innovative initiatives and doesn't include vouchers and tuition tax credits that would divert state funds to private schools. Supporters of tax credits attached amendments to the original bill in 2007 "and were beaten back," said Rex. "Then it got to the governor and he vetoed it because of the lack of (private school) choice and tax credits. I'm sure the voucher thing will come back and they'll have to try to override the governor's veto again." The superintendent wants school districts to provide more instructional choices, such as single-gender classrooms, Montessori programs and magnet schools. Two years ago, he supported the concept of students crossing district lines for such special purpose programs, but now, the latest version calls only for encouraging such crossover opportunities. Deputy Superintendent Mark Bounds also provided copies of a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality - "While States Fail to Retain Effective Teachers." In terms of teacher retention and policies that ensure ineffective teachers don't remain in the classroom, South Carolina scored a "B minus." But that was good enough to lead all other states, the report stated. Bounds cited the state's ADEPT program for new teachers, which includes induction, mentoring and performance reviews before teachers can earn formal professional certificates. The first-year teachers benefit from having mentors, said Michele Conner, Aiken School District elementary education coordinator, in an interview Thursday. "That helps them get oriented with the constant, daily support of a mentor teacher," she said. "There are a lot more efforts with common planning time and teachers working together." While the state is still losing 30 percent of its new teachers over a five-year period, that follows the trend of most other professions, Bounds said. "Kids want to try something and don't feel any problem about moving to another field," he said. Contact Rob Novit at rnovit@aikenstandard.com.