COLUMBIA — South Carolina legislators have filed 102 bills this month to jumpstart efforts to lift the state’s public schools from the bottom of national rankings, but the most substantial reform measures remain in the works.

Many of the bills already in the pipeline are aimed at stemming the state's growing teacher shortage crisis, both by increasing incomes that have effectively shrunk with inflation and freeing educators to focus on the reason they chose the profession — to teach students. Other proposals include forcing tiny school districts to consolidate and barring classes from starting before 8:30 a.m. 

As laid out in The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series, only a third of students are graduating high school prepared for most jobs, and backsliding test scores in the younger grades indicate the numbers could only get worse. Underpaid teachers are abandoning the profession in droves, placing even more stress and burdens on those left and fueling a downward spiral.

Legislative leaders promise education reform will be their top priority next year, though comprehensive plans for systemic change were absent from the stack of pre-filed legislation lawmakers submitted over the past two weeks.

House Speaker Jay Lucas received a standing ovation from the chamber when he told his colleagues earlier this month that it was time to fix the state's education system. "Without significant reforms, our students won’t have a future," he said.

Legislators generally agree reform must involve overhauling the overly complicated way the state funds public schools. But how remains the question — more than four years after the state Supreme Court ruled the state fails to provide poor, rural students even a "minimally adequate" education and ordered legislators to fix the system.

None of the pre-filed bills address the labyrinth of funding formulas that have been stacked on top of each other since 1977. But House leaders reiterated last week they're diligently working on a holistic fix that helps both poor and fast-growing districts. Budgetary measures generally start in the House, rather than the Senate.

"Comprehensive K-12 reform is not a pre-file piece of legislation," House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, told The Post and Courier Wednesday.

What's important is that, "from the speaker's vantage point, from the GOP caucus and the Democratic caucus — all three voices have said education is the No. 1 priority," he said. "What has to happen is listening to testimony and looking at all the options."

Other priorities for the session include a massive overhaul of South Carolina's tax structure that's being pushed by the state Chamber of Commerce. Since any tweaks to the tax code affect education funding, the two efforts could work in concert, which could either boost their chances or prevent any consensus on change before the regular session ends in mid-May. 

Teachers fed up 

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, referred to Lucas' remarks from the podium in reassuring several dozen frustrated teachers who took personal time off Dec. 12 to advocate at the Statehouse for better wages and conditions. Some said they're on the verge of an organized walk-out. 

"There are things taking place I know y'all don’t understand as that big a deal, but ... that was a big deal," Ott said. "Lucas sets the agenda. He decides a lot of times what we focus on or what we don't focus on. Simply those little words, people perk up. People we serve with perk up and listen. There are things going on." 

"He, as a leader, understands we're getting perilously close" to a strike, said Ott, the chamber's assistant minority leader. "A lot of us have been saying it for a long time. ... But I think that message is getting through." 

He's among a bipartisan group of legislators who pre-filed a "Teacher Bill of Rights." Those "rights" include better pay, freedom from excessive paperwork and guaranteed breaks during the workday. While teachers thanked the sponsors, they worry the list, even if it becomes law, would be little more than feel-good fluff. Ott called it a good start that will put legislators on record for the changes that must follow.

Teachers are fed up. In addition to low pay that requires many to take part-time jobs, teachers complain about unpaid duties outside the classroom, growing class sizes that feed unruly behavior, and incessant testing that can rob students of seven weeks' worth of learning. The exact amount of time lost depends on how many tests districts pile on throughout the year to prepare for the state's fill-in-the-bubble, end-of-year tests that determine schools' ratings.

The fear of a bad grade on state report cards has resulted in less actual instruction, teachers lament.  

"As an adult, when have you ever needed bubbling skills?" Lisa Ellis, a Blythewood High teacher and founder of the advocacy group SC for Ed, asked senators seeking input on how to clear some of the clutter.  

Some legislators' answer is to abolish the Education Oversight Committee, the independent agency that oversees state testing and creates the report cards. But eliminating the agency altogether is unlikely to gain traction in a Legislature that likes to test for every additional requirement.

Even as some pre-filed bills seek to reduce testing, others would tack on more. Several proposals would require high schoolers to take courses in personal finance and the U.S. Constitution — and, of course, pass new state tests on those subjects to graduate.

Time for change?

Several proposals would ask voters whether the state constitution should change to require a high-quality education for all, instead of the minimally adequate standard interpreted by the state's high court in 1999. More than 13 previous measures to at least symbolically demand better for students went nowhere amid a decades-long lawsuit from poor, rural districts.

“I believe strongly that we have a great shot this year,” said Rep. Jerry Govan, an Orangeburg Democrat who is pushing for a change. "There seems to be a perfect storm brewing to have some real debate about where we go from here.”

“It’s just a disgrace and a shame if we don’t do it,” he said about amending the constitution. “I have full confidence that there are enough pro-public education members of the General Assembly on both sides of the aisle to make this a non-partisan issue.”

Frances Welch, dean of the College of Charleston’s School of Education, said she is thrilled to see lawmakers showing renewed interest in reform in the wake of The Post and Courier's five-part series. The key moving forward will be for the discussion to be deliberate and informed, avoiding knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes, she said.

Welch is pleased to see bipartisan support for raising teacher pay, which she considers a critical issue.

“Salaries are very important,” she said. “You want to have enough funding for teachers so they can live comfortably and afford to live in the communities where they work.”

A key question is, can legislators unite behind a reform plan all sides agree will improve South Carolina's schools, or will the effort splinter into different factions?  

Greenville County's GOP legislators want Lucas to take up their plan, developed by the Palmetto Promise Institute, a conservative think tank founded by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of Greenville. They call it the Help Our Pupils Excel, or HOPE, plan, which will consist of six separate bills.

On Tuesday, the day of House pre-filing, the delegation released a letter that applauded Lucas for his commitment to reform and suggested he follow the Republican group's roadmap.  

Three bills the group is still crafting would simplify funding to a single formula, create additional ways for people who are interested in teaching to enter the profession, and let districts change how teachers are paid — to reward top teachers rather than pay according to their years in the classroom and degree. 

The bills in the package ready to file when session starts Jan. 8 would expand students' online course offerings, require small school districts to merge, and — sure to be the most controversial — directly help parents pay private tuition through "education savings accounts."

The state's existing scholarship program, created in 2014 after a decade of debates that divided the GOP, is limited to special need students and involves tax credits. Parents who can afford to pay tuition upfront can claim credits on their income tax returns, while scholarships are funded by donors who claim the credits.

The upcoming proposal would provide parents a debit card of sorts — with an amount equal to the state's per-child spending for that district. Payments would be available to poor students, special needs students, foster children, and the children of military personnel. A cost estimate is under way, said Oran Smith, a spokesman for the institute.

Terry Peterson, the architect of education reforms under former Gov. Dick Riley in the early '80s, said such proposals would be counter to the necessary reforms.

The varied proposals coming from legislators so far “raise my concern that many new education acts might pass this year and many might do little to address underlying education issues nor provide the needed new and better opportunities," said Peterson, a senior fellow at the College of Charleston and the Riley Institute. "They may even further add to the hodgepodge of laws and regulations not leading to a coherent, comprehensive package of education improvements.”

Glenn Smith and Jennifer Berry Hawes contributed to this report.

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.