COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster's proposed budget would boost teachers' pay by 5 percent to above the Southeastern average, give colleges $36 million more if they freeze tuition for South Carolina students and refund $200 million to taxpayers.
McMaster's spending plan, released Tuesday, puts dollar figures behind his inaugural speech's dual pledges to invest more in education while returning surplus tax collections.
"Improving education in rural and struggling school districts requires a state-backed economic development commitment to bring jobs to these communities by providing infrastructure — not only in water, sewer and roads but in school buildings and facilities," he wrote in his budget letter to legislators, repeating a line in his inaugural speech a week ago. "This will provide the spark. We must be bold."
But his budget proposal would not directly provide additional money to poor, rural districts.
Instead, it gives $100 million to the state Commerce Department to help recruit jobs to the 28 poorest school districts and spends $63 million to train workers for existing job openings.
That includes $10 million to increase internship opportunities for high school students and $22 million for scholarships to technical colleges so people can earn trade certificates for free.
In the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series, lawmakers have pledged to overhaul an education system that fails to prepare thousands of students for college or the modern work force after high school.
McMaster has been working closely with House leaders on how to do that, indicating his budget proposals stand a better chance of passing than historically has been the case for a governor's spending recommendations. They're often promptly ignored.
"Policy-wise, we're marching pretty much to the same drumbeat," said House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Lyman, though she added the specifics and actual amounts could differ. She expects House leaders to file education reform legislation within the next two weeks.
McMaster said the additional $1 billion available to spend in the fiscal year starting July 1 means "now is the time" to fix education.
"The fact we have this surplus coming in is like a gift from the sky that makes it more imperative we do it this year," he told reporters.
McMaster's budget serves as recommendations to House and Senate budget-writing committees. The legislation must start in the House, where floor debate is expected in mid-March. The Senate will then make tweaks and pass its own plan. A panel of representatives and senators is normally needed to hammer out a compromise.
K-12 education spending
McMaster's proposal spends $155 million to push South Carolina's teacher salaries to several hundred dollars above the Southeastern average, as state Superintendent Molly Spearman requested. State law has technically required aligning with the regional average since 1984.
McMaster recommends spending $46 million to honor a campaign promise to put an armed officer in every school — something he's repeatedly pushed for since last February's deadly shooting at a Florida high school. That would hire about 760 officers for schools that can't afford to pay for officers through local taxes.
He proposes giving the Department of Mental Health a little more than $2 million to hire 90 additional mental health counselors who can travel from school to school when needed. McMaster said that will provide every school access to a counselor.
Lifting up rural areas
The $100 million for rural job recruitment could help renovate or build school buildings, but only if that's what's needed to entice an employer to that district. School districts would have no ability to request any of it directly, according to the governor's office.
McMaster said it's better to give the money to the commerce agency because it has a better view of what's needed to steer businesses interested in coming to or expanding in South Carolina to rural areas and then seal the deal.
Educators and legislators applauded the idea, saying economic development is part of education reform.
"It really does go hand-in-hand," as jobs are needed to prevent young people from leaving rural areas and create vibrant communities where teachers are willing to go and stay, Spearman said.
Rural communities "don't have the capacity to fix the systems they're plagued with," said Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, who presented the idea to the governor's office. "They're losing their graduates and keeping their drop-outs. They're on a downward spiral and the state has to find a way to correct that."
He called the deal-closing fund an "excellent start" to the state reinvesting in rural areas.
He and Spearman also support a separate program providing direct grants to districts for renovations.
Legislation creating the program passed the House overwhelmingly in the last two sessions but failed in the Senate. Allison said that could still be part of the House plan.
Under McMaster's plan, all taxpayers who file income tax returns this year would collectively receive $200 million back by Dec. 15 with exact amounts based on how much residents pay in taxes.
The governor's office could not provide an average rebate, saying that will depend on how many people file by the Oct. 15 extended deadline.
Last year, 2.4 million state returns were filed, which would mean $84 back on average.
McMaster says the state shouldn't spend all of the additional money available to legislators. About half of the $1 billion comes from surpluses meant for one-time expenses. State agencies collectively requested $2.3 billion in additional money.
McMaster again proposes exempting the pension benefits of military veterans and first responders from state income taxes, reducing state revenue by an estimated $20.7 million and benefiting roughly 60,000 residents. That idea went nowhere last year.
McMaster said his budget starts to rein in South Carolina's rising tuition costs, which are among the highest in the nation for in-state students.
College officials have long complained the hikes are necessary because of deep budget cuts legislators made during the Great Recession and never restored.
McMaster proposes increasing what colleges get from state taxes by 6 percent if their boards don't raise the cost of tuition and academic fees on in-state students for the coming school year.
The $36 million would be shared among the state's 17 public two- and four-year colleges and the technical college system, which oversees 16 schools.
Amounts each would receive would range from $62,100 for the University of South Carolina at Union to $8.3 million to USC's main Columbia campus. The entire technical college system would get $9.3 million.