COLUMBIA - Gov. Nikki Haley celebrated the passage of her education funding plan Monday, but reiterated it's just the first step of a multi-year effort.
The Republican governor's recommendations, which spend an additional $180 million on K-12 education, were included in the Legislature's budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.
"This is not a one-year fix. We have to do this every single year," Haley said at a news conference at Logan Elementary School in downtown Columbia.
She declined afterward to specify amounts needed to continue reform in future years.
Her proposal - announced in January following a series of meetings with educators, legislators and business leaders - sailed through the budget process, as both the House and Senate adopted them. The budget sent to Haley's desk Thursday allocates more money to students in poor, rural districts without taking money away from other districts that can better equip classrooms through local property taxes.
Changes include a first-ever weighting for poverty, which translates to an additional $97 million spent on students who qualify for free meals. It also spends 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn't English.
Democrats have long fought for such weightings. In 1993, 40 of the state's then-91 districts sued the state for adequate funding, pitting struggling districts against GOP lawmakers who testified against their request. The state Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether South Carolina schools provide all students access to a "minimally adequate education." When justices reheard the case in 2012, they said they recognize that students in poor, rural districts aren't succeeding but questioned whether they could force legislative action.
Haley called her budget plan historic.
"This was the day we decided we really want to fulfill the American dream for every person in our state," Haley said. "It comes down to one thing - and we had to take the blinders off - and that was poverty. Until we acknowledge the fact that we have poverty across this state and children born into poverty - it's not their fault - it's the reason we have to do even more."
Other elements adopted from Haley's budget proposal include $30 million to hire additional reading coaches in elementary schools and $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools. The state will 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 will be partially funded at others. Technology money will be distributed to districts based on their poverty rating.
Logan Elementary, where 87 percent of children qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, is among schools where the state will fully fund a reading coach. Principal Richard Moore said local taxes are funding its current coach. He's unsure if the state budget means he'll have two coaches next year, or if the district will redirect the local money to boost other services at his school.
The reading components align with the "Read to Succeed" bill that Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler introduced last year. The Legislature gave final approval to that bill last Thursday. That and her budget plan "went together beautifully," Haley said, indicating she'll sign it.
It seeks to ensure students can read by fourth grade through a coordinated focus that includes reading coaches, summer reading camps and teacher training. Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, students still struggling to read by the end of third grade would be held back for intensive help. It also calls for eventually expanding state-paid, full-day kindergarten for poor 4-year-olds statewide. The Legislature's budget added 10 districts to the program, increasing access to 61 of the state's 81 districts.
Haley recognized the GOP candidates for superintendent of education attending the event. Those who stood to show their support were Sally Atwater, Meka Childs, Amy Cofield, Elizabeth Moffly, and Molly Spearman. Haley's campaign said Don Jordan's wife also attended. Sheri Few sent out a release saying she opposes "Read to Succeed."
When informed that bill wasn't the purpose of the event, Few said she opposes Haley's education budget too. Democrats' support of it shows it's too liberal, she said: "We need free-market reforms, not government-driven reforms."