BY PAUL KROHNE
A recent Washington Post study tells us — if anyone needed independent confirmation — that partisan divisions in America are wider and deeper today than at any time in modern history.
In the aftermath of a bitter election, it is worth noting that in South Carolina, at least, one issue continues to transcend voter differences, emerging year after year, whatever the circumstances, as a priority for voters from both parties.
Support for public education is a constant sentiment here, strongly reiterated this year when voters resoundingly approved each of the three public school referendums offered on county ballots. Those decisions, combined with referendums approved two years ago, have dedicated more than $850 million toward the improvement of local schools.
The willingness of South Carolina voters to support education even in recessionary times reflects an awareness that communities rise and fall based in large part on the quality of their schools.
Most voters, whatever their political persuasion, are also well aware that far too many of our schools are underfunded, operating without the resources that would help their communities prosper.
South Carolina’s system of funding public schools is broken, a fact we have recognized, studied and argued in court for more than a decade. It is hugely complex, a tangle of laws and funding streams that few people can begin to unravel. It is inadequate and unstable, leaving schools at the mercy of fluctuating state resources and restricting their ability to make up the difference with local revenues.
It is also shamefully inequitable, a direct contributor to the deplorable conditions and poor quality of education in our many impoverished communities.
This year, we have an important opportunity to change that. The South Carolina School Boards Association (SCSBA), the South Carolina Association of School Administrators — led by noted economist Dr. Harry Miley, former chairman of the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors — have built on more than a decade of study to develop a comprehensive tax and funding reform plan that resolves these longstanding problems, creating a system that is simpler, more adequate and fairer to all districts.
The proposal, called the South Carolina Jobs, Education and Tax Act of 2013 (SCJET), would generate funding for schools in two ways.
First, the plan would establish a uniform statewide tax rate of 100 mills on taxable property (excluding homestead and owner-occupied property), immediately lowering rates in 78 of the state’s 81 districts.
Second, funding from more than 70 separate state revenue streams, including the Education Finance Act, the Homestead Exemption Fund, and some Education Improvement Act funds, would be rolled up into a single source.
Revenues generated through these sources would be allocated on a per-pupil basis, spreading resources more evenly around the state. Weightings would be assigned to students for various factors including grade level, poverty, gifted and talented, special needs and more for increased funding based on unique needs, but districts would receive about the same amount — currently estimated at around $5,295 per student —which communities could add to, if they chose, through local levies and referendums.
These provisions accomplish all of several goals that guided us in developing an alternative school funding plan.
It replaces a system that has been patched, added to and tinkered with to the point of unintelligibility with a system that is clear and rational.
It resolves many of the unintended, negative consequences of Act 388 or homeowner property tax relief, including increased school reliance on unstable sales tax revenues and a dramatic increase in the tax burden borne by state businesses.
SCJET would provide a sound and stable revenue source for schools, protecting education in times of economic decline, and would reduce property taxes on business, industry and other non-owner-occupied property by more than $600 million, helping to fuel business and economic growth.
Most important, it protects the funding that fuels successful schools while helping to level the playing field for children in resource-poor communities. SCJET maintains state funding at least at current levels in every school and preserves local ability to raise additional revenue, while increasing state funding for 60 percent of South Carolina’s students.
SCJET is not a magic plan. The General Assembly would need to generate additional funds to bridge the gap between revenues and costs, as it can and should do as part of comprehensive tax reform.
But in a state that continues to struggle with the educational inequality, which contributes directly to every other social ill our state faces, creating public schools that give every child an equal chance in life is a good investment as well as a moral responsibility.
South Carolinians understand the value of good schools, and they have always been willing to support them. This year, the Legislature should listen and lead the way.
Dr. Paul Krohne is executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association.