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South Carolina's lacking public primary education system is about to take center stage in a gubernatorial campaign for the first time since the late 1990s.

Gov. Nikki Haley is set to make that happen Wednesday, when she walks into a West Columbia elementary school and presents her plan to reform the state's K-12 public schools.

She has not revealed the plan's details but has said it involves a focus on literacy, helping teachers, more technology and more money to schools. And she said a special focus needs to be aimed at the state's struggling, poor rural districts.

Haley is a product of one of those struggling districts in Bamberg County and has been quoted as calling the present system "immoral." That's because school funding is based largely on local property taxes, which means the quality of education children receive is based on where they live.

She is sounding a lot like her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, who set out an education reform plan last March in his book, "The Right Way."

A rare occurrence

Longtime political observer Neal Thigpen said it is a rare occurrence for both sides to be talking about trying to improve the state's struggling education system.

It's relatively common for Democrats to focus on education, he said, "but when was the last time you saw the Republican talk about it?"

Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political science professor, said the last time improving public education occupied center stage in a South Carolina gubernatorial campaign was in 1998, when Gov. David Beasley was defeated in his bid for re-election by Democrat Jim Hodges. But that campaign was more about setting up a state-run lottery than education, although the state lottery profits were to be used to subsidize in-state college students and partially to aid K-12 schools.

Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said, "I see this as shaping up to be a distinctive campaign. This seems to me to be an important policy debate for South Carolina. ... There is an opportunity here for the state since South Carolina has been 'racing to the bottom' with other poor states. Moving education to the forefront of our policy agenda could give us a competitive advantage over other states who are paring back on support for education."

Tompkins said he can't recall a gubernatorial campaign where education played as prominent a role since Democratic Gov. Dick Riley's initiatives in the 1980s. Riley, the so-called "education governor" who served from 1979-87, helped establish the state's current system for funding schools, which both Haley and Sheheen say needs to be changed.

Debate begins

Sheheen characterized Haley's effort to improve K-12 public schools as "pandering in an election year." He said it highlights her lack of leadership to discover the need to upgrade the state's struggling schools in the fourth year of a four-year term.

He said that for years he has characterized the state's current system for funding schools as "immoral" and is pleased to see the governor "adopt my language." Still, he said, Haley has done nothing about improving the schools since she took office three years ago until now with the election campaign underway.

Haley's campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey shot back, "It's a shame that Sen. Sheheen feels the need to criticize a proposal he hasn't even seen, but we'll leave the politics to him. Gov. Haley's goal here is to better our education system and in turn the lives of South Carolina's children, and our hope is the rest of our state's political class will join her."

He pointed out that Haley received editorial and political praise last year when she began an effort to hold "a conversation with legislators" to see if they could come to some common ground on what to do to improve the state's schools.

Godfrey pointed to one newspaper column that quoted Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson saying, "This is the first time I've seen a governor make an outreach to the legislative leadership and to the education community to the extent Gov. Haley has and I commend her for that."

Now, a year after that outreach began, Godfrey said, Haley "is excited to share her findings and proposals with the public and with members of the General Assembly."

School change coming

Several bills aimed at improving aspects of education already have been introduced in the Legislature, but Haley has indicated that her plan is a comprehensive effort to bring about long-term, fundamental improvement.

Sheheen's plan is also a comprehensive, long-term effort.

He would change the current system for funding schools. He would take responsibility away from local districts and put it all in the state's hands by shifting some local taxes to the state and setting priorities that focus on what each child needs. Education "is the state's responsibility," Sheheen said.

Sheheen said he would focus on access and quality.

To improve access he wants the state to provide 4-year-old, pre-kindergarten to all children. In recent years he has worked on legislation to expand such access, however, the state still does not provide it to all children.

Quality means great teachers, he said. He advocates increasing the state's average teacher salary of $46,000 to the national average of $51,500. Good teachers need to be rewarded, he said, and the system needs to be changed to make it easier for schools to get rid of bad ones.

A good debate for S.C.

USC's Tompkins said the fact that Gov. Haley is choosing to emphasize the same issues as Sheheen is both "good policy and good politics.

"Good policy because enhancing early childhood education, doing more to promote education in areas of the state where the challenges are greatest, and improving students' technological literacy all offer a compelling story to the outside world, as well as promoting development here in the state.

"Good politics because it allows her to compete more effectively against Sen. Sheheen's proposals and his record. And smart politics because it seems increasingly likely that she may not face a strong challenge in the Republican primary."

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558.