There’s a lot of disappointment about the Legislature’s failure to deliver this year on its promise of transformational reform of South Carolina’s education system, particularly but certainly not exclusively among teachers. It’s easy to view legislators’ pledges to make those major changes as a delay tactic, a promise of a next year that never comes.
But a wonky report released the day the Legislature completed its regular session could hold the key to generational changes in the way we fund schools and, even more importantly, the way we understand what we are funding and what we’re getting in return. It should lay the groundwork for changes in governance and accountability measures and teaching methods and all of the other needed reforms that go far beyond funding. And if it lives up to its promise, it will be extremely difficult for the Legislature to ignore.
The state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office’s education funding report comes in response to a January request by Gov. Henry McMaster, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler for “a new, updated funding model to guide state appropriations and local school district expenditures for public education in order to improve efficiency, transparency, accountability and affordability.”
It is not complete, and even when it is, perhaps in the fall, it won’t tell us anything about how to get parents more involved in their children’s education or how to inspire those kids whose parents aren’t involved.
It won’t tell us what tests the state ought to mandate or what tests it ought to prohibit districts from administering.
It won’t tell us whether we should move more schools toward Montessori or new-tech or other models, or how to capitalize on the promise of charter schools without falling into the trap of separating out the students with the most active and engaged parents and leaving the others in educational ghettos.
What it will do, according to the May 9 status report, is show us precisely what we are spending per student – which no one can agree how to quantify now because we have competing ways to measure it, none of which is adequate.
It will show how much of that money goes to instruction, to administration and to facilities, which is possible but extremely tedious to calculate now.
It will eliminate complicated student weightings that are supposed to provide the extra money it costs to educate, say, a poor kid, or a child who is blind or who has learning disabilities; they’ll be replaced by formulas that take into account the cost to employ a special-needs teacher, or speech therapist, and how many hours of specialized education each student needs – information that’s already available on federal reports but not used by state budget writers.
And it will provide this information not only at the state level but also at the district level and, eventually, in each school.
By doing that, it will do on the funding side what the state’s Education Accountability Act was supposed to do on the academic side: Unmask the averages that hide the failures and the successes, and pinpoint the areas that need attention.
The new model isn’t designed to show us what should be; that’s a policy question. Once officials have confirmed their numbers and gotten feedback to make sure they aren’t overlooking or misunderstanding anything, it will show us what is. And with that information, it will be a lot easier for lawmakers to answer the policy questions, to determine what should be – and a lot more difficult not to act on the answers. Which is essential, because we simply can’t afford to keep doing what we’ve always done.
— Post and Courier, Charleston