School funding cuts are bleeding away S.C.'s future
There's an indisputable and inseparable connection between South Carolina's future and the delivery of quality education and training.
So how are we doing with that well-chiseled public-policy reality, folks?
Visit a school, talk to teachers and administrators, read this newspaper -- too many school districts are in crisis mode. Public education leaders all over South Carolina are sounding dire warnings.
Are we listening? The great recession has produced a numbing rhythm of one after another state funding cut. We tend to lament them all and then strongly object to any revenue enhancers -- like higher taxes or more creative tax systems. Funding for schools and higher education become fuzzy abstractions, problems to be solved by our legislators with actions that make everybody happy. We want it both ways -- good schools at all levels, just don't bother us with the funding details and don't bother our wallets, either.
We're Pogo's enemy of us, the village idiots watching a promising education system struggle downward through mediocrity to failure.
Let's go over the fundamentals one more time. Public education is not an elective luxury; it's a generational responsibility -- and a definer of quality of life and thus, economic development prospects. We get what we demand; we get what we pay for.
We South Carolina taxpayers need to gut-check both sides of that equation. We like our taxes low and we see waste and mismanagement ghosts everywhere, demanding immaculate perfection as quid pro quo for every dime of public funding.
Some retirees, loving every part of our state's quality of life, reject the notion of generational duty -- and ignore the connection between good schools and other problems, like crime and poverty.
And when recessions hit state coffers, we wonder whatever happened to rainy day funds and then cut across the board from the bottom up. In too many communities, we allow rampant growth to overwhelm schools.
In his op-ed column in Monday's Post and Courier, Paul Krohne, executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association, wrote that the state's schools system has devolved from its great promise 15 years ago. School districts absorbed $600 million in state funding cuts over the last two years and face another $100 million in the budget now being drafted by the General Assembly. "Spending already cut to the bone will be cut to the marrow," Dr. Krohne warns.
The crisis is especially acute in metropolitan Charleston.
Doug Cooper, chairman of the Berkeley County School Board, told a business group last week, "We're essentially out of business; a whole generation of students could be lost and need remedial education as adults." He described a perfect storm -- schools closing, sports programs dropped, worsening teacher-student ratios produced by less money, more students and fewer teachers.
"We're going to cut our arm off to save ourselves for next year," Cooper declared. "After that there's nothing more to cut off."
Allyson Duke, Dorchester District 2 schools' chief financial officer, echoed Cooper's assessments, "We're dealing with next year right now, and we know it's going to be worse the next year. We can't even fathom what happens after that."
Ruth Jordan, Charleston County School Board chairperson, considers the funding crisis "grim," explaining that "people don't understand how this is really impacting us. You've got to have an educated workforce. If that's not the desire of the state, I don't know what is."
Dr. Krohne's summary of what could happen next is scary. The General Assembly's draft budget would support teachers' salaries at 1995 levels -- a 50 per cent reduction of funding for teacher pay. There will be further cuts in teachers' and employees' health insurance benefits. The "marrow" cuts already have doomed 1,400 teaching positions, after-school homework centers, reading assistance programs and other resource programs. "Without immediate action," Dr. Krohne warns, "hundreds more teachers will be furloughed or let go all together."
Every dollar cut by the state must be supplanted at the local district level or something has to give, another trick bag for school districts. Four years ago, school taxes were largely related to real property assessments. That system was essentially replaced with a sales tax share in a property tax reform package. In retrospect, the public policy rationality of that move seems suspect. It was certainly ill-timed, becoming fully effective just in time for the great recession to suck the life out of sales tax production.
Legislators have fewer dollars and many difficult choices, and public school funding surely tops the list. They're getting plenty of guidance from school districts throughout the state. Let's hope they're listening. But we taxpayers must somehow add a grass-roots voice to this process, to give our elected leaders a sense of comfort that it's okay to proceed with tough, bold and creative ways to rescue our schools from these funding snarls. Or as a veteran teacher recently suggested, some discomfort if they don't.
But this need not be a political game. Stabilizing and strengthening South Carolina's public schools requires matching best efforts with best hopes -- and understanding that every hope for South Carolina is related to public education at all levels.
Ron Brinson is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.