By SEANNA ADCOX
WEST COLUMBIA - Gov. Nikki Haley announced an education plan Wednesday that spends more money on poor children, focuses on reading in the early grades and improves technology in schools.
Haley's proposal would spend more than $160 million extra in the next fiscal year on public schools. The Republican governor said this must be the first of a multiyear effort to transform South Carolina's schools within the next decade.
Her proposal includes spending an additional $97 million on children who live in poverty, $30 million to hire additional reading coaches in elementary schools and $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools. The state would fully cover the cost of a reading coach for several hundred elementary schools where a substantial number of students score poorly on standardized reading tests. The coaches would be partially funded at others. Technology money would be distributed to districts based on their poverty rating.
The plan also puts more money toward summer reading camps, teacher training in reading and technology, charter schools and adult education classes. A detailed breakdown is expected as part of her executive budget proposal for 2014-15.
The bulk of the money would come from projected increases in state tax collections. Haley said no tax increase is needed and no district would get less money under the proposal.
Members of school and teacher advocacy groups said they're optimistic, but they await more details.
"I am really excited after hearing what she had to say," said Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
Ahead of the announcement, state Democratic Party spokeswoman Kristin Sosanie criticized Haley, who campaigned on education reform in 2010, for taking three years to "finally come up with a proposal."
Haley's news conference at an elementary school in West Columbia came a year after she announced during her State of the State speech that she wanted to start a conversation about the way public schools are funded. On Wednesday, Haley said she didn't want to lay out a proposal until she knew more about what was happening in classrooms. The plan was developed from about 20 meetings last year with groups that included teachers, administrators, legislators and business leaders, she said.
"I am very encouraged. She listened," said Molly Spearman, director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. "It's exciting to finally have a focus on public education after a long hiatus."
Haley, who grew up in rural Bamberg, again recalled realizing as a kid that other schools she visited were better equipped than hers.
"Now my daughter goes to the fabulous River Bluff High School in Lexington where every classroom has a 72-inch TV and every child has an iPad. Yet, when I went back to Bamberg to give an anti-bullying speech, they didn't even have the equipment for me to play a video," she said. "That's immoral. That's wrong. We can't be OK with that. We can't say we're going to continue to educate children in South Carolina based on where they're born and raised."
The state sends money to South Carolina's schools based on complicated, decades-old formulas that legislators have long said should be overhauled. Local property taxes and the federal government provide the other funding sources. Overhauling the state's piecemeal funding system has yet to move beyond political speeches and study committees.
Haley said her plan would simplify the formulas, while spending 20 percent more on children who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, to target funding to the neediest schools. Her plan would also spend 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn't English and therefore need one-on-one help.
"If we're really going to bring up South Carolina, we're going to bring up all of South Carolina and put poverty as a measure," she said.
Democrats have been pushing to add a poverty weighting for years, but Republicans who control the Legislature have balked at the idea.
"I'm glad she now supports our proposal," said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley's Democratic opponent in the governor's race.
Sheheen, D-Camden, worked last year to push through an expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten. This year, he wants to expand it further, to make it available to all 4-year-olds statewide whose parents want them to attend. He also wants to raise teacher salaries.
He criticized Haley's plan as tinkering with the current system, rather than fundamentally changing it.
"I think a healthy debate about the budget is good. I don't think that's reform," he said.
Both Haley and Sheheen will be touting their ideas as this year's campaign heats up. Haley said her education initiative will be her top priority this year.
Sheheen pointed out that Haley's executive budget proposals and vetoes would have cut public education over the last three years.