It was “past time” in 2017 for South Carolina to revisit its decades-old school funding system.

It was clear in 2015 that entire school districts in the Palmetto State “cannot provide the education their students deserve.”

Before that, 2008 marked a “timely moment” to rethink how the state pays for its schools.

And it was time back in 2007 to stop settling for “incremental improvement” to South Carolina’s failing education system, because it would threaten the state’s economic vitality in the long run.

“South Carolina can no longer afford the outdated concept of minimal adequacy,” a task force wrote then, in yet another report pleading with state lawmakers to make sweeping changes to an education system that ranks among the country's worst.

But wholesale reform hasn’t come. Time and again, optimistic overtures about why this year is an “opportune moment” for change have found their way to collecting dust, along with reams of recommendations about how South Carolina could lift itself from the bottom of national education rankings.

State lawmakers often say they don’t know where to start fixing the school system because comprehensive changes would be complicated and they don’t understand the funding system themselves. But they have also shelved report after report suggesting detailed fixes — even one that recommended they make school finances “more comprehensible to both legislators and citizens.”

But those reports — and the many ideas they offer — could find new life after Gov. Henry McMaster and top lawmakers such as House Speaker Jay Lucas said education would be a top focus of next year's legislative session.

Their renewed interest comes in the wake of The Post and Courier’s five-part series, “Minimally Adequate,” which detailed how the state’s public schools are saddled with gaping disparities, widespread segregation and a history of low expectations. The series also described how the state’s shortcomings have left thousands of students unprepared for college or work after high school, threatening the state’s prosperity in the midst of an economic rebirth.

“It has to ferment at the top. There has to be enough folks willing to step up and do it, and I think it has fermented to the top,” said Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, who served on an education task force in 2015. “Legislators have to feel that is a priority, and I think they finally realize it is.”

Recurring themes

Read enough of the reports, and the same themes will emerge over and over.

Studies that first set out to address the state’s mounting teacher shortage or review its complicated funding system reach similar conclusions: South Carolina needs a plan. And it needs to replace its piecemeal approach to education fixes with a comprehensive vision for doing better.

A few years ago, it seemed like South Carolina might draw up that kind of a plan. The Legislature had just lost a decades-long fight with the state’s poorest school districts, and the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to make big changes.

So they convened a task force of lawmakers and experts and gave them a mandate to dream up a path forward. Leaders like former Gov. Richard Riley (1978-86), the last governor to push comprehensive education reform, regaled it with fresh optimism.

“The court has given you the challenge and also a great opportunity to develop a meaningful, research-based education agenda,” Riley said in 2015. “You truly have a generational opportunity. It may even be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance to get this right.”

The task force traveled around the state, heard ideas from past education leaders and talked to national experts. They also got a wish list of reforms from the school districts, who said their plan could overcome “chronic” problems that span generations.

Among other things, the task force recommended setting new requirements for school districts to follow, helping them find leaders, giving extra money to high-poverty schools and starting a new infrastructure bank to help replace crumbling buildings.

The group's subcommittees had even more aggressive ideas for tracking individual students’ trajectories, building a more robust transportation system, paying teachers more to work in rural districts and a host of other initiatives.

By and large, they weren’t implemented. Terry Peterson, the architect of Riley’s education reform law, said the most ambitious ideas were “heard but not acted on in any meaningful way.”

Jo Anne Anderson, a former director of the state’s Education Oversight Committee, helped the school districts design their plan. Their suggestions weren’t exactly ignored, she says, but they weren’t embraced either. So after two decades of litigation, the schools were left with little more than a nod to the problems they raised.

Hopes for a comprehensive plan were winnowed down to a new set of piecemeal changes, like requiring the state’s smallest districts to collaborate on administrative costs and providing a block of one-time money to work on crumbling buildings.

Two years later, a pair of pro-reform justices on the state Supreme Court retired, and lawmakers replaced them with reliably conservative jurists, who dismissed the case.

David Longshore, a 30-year education veteran and former school superintendent from Orangeburg County, served on the 2015 task force. The experience left him frustrated, believing it was all a political exercise designed to buy the Legislature time.

“The plan was to string this out until they got a friendly majority on the Supreme Court to make the lawsuit go away,” he said. “We don’t need any more studies. People know what the issues are in education in South Carolina, but the state doesn’t have the political will to address these things.”

Renewed interest

Top lawmakers say they now have that will, marking renewed interest in reforming an education system that ranks among the worst in the nation by nearly every measure.

The governor's office says McMaster will make education a focus in his upcoming State of the State address and his executive budget. And Lucas, the Speaker of the House, said Tuesday the state needed to “face reality in education.”

The Legislature’s focus appears to center around taming the tangled mess of formulas that determine how money for schools is divvied up. That issue has been studied at length, too.

One task force in 2007, for instance, urged lawmakers to simplify their patchwork attempts to pay for new programs into one all-encompassing system, and it said the Legislature ought to update its assumptions about what it costs to educate a student. South Carolina’s funding system is based on what it cost to run a school in the 1970s, a number the state adjusts for inflation but not new requirements.

Rep. Brian White, who had been the House's top budget writer since 2011, said he was working on a new funding system and planned to have overhaul legislation out of his committee by February. But his plan was derailed Wednesday when he was ejected from the budget panel. His replacement, Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, will be tasked with picking up the effort.

Even so, the committee won't have to look far to find funding ideas.

Last year, for instance, a pair of Clemson University researchers took a fresh look at the funding system and made the same recommendation as the 2007 task force. Change still hadn’t been made, they wrote, “and at this point, another decade has elapsed.”

“The basic conclusions are still valid, and the basic policy recommendations are still valid,” said Holley Ulbrich, a retired Clemson economist who co-authored the report last year and helped with the 2007 study.

She hopes the Legislature will dust them off.

Seanna Adcox and Glenn Smith contributed to this report. 

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.