Jay Lucas oath

House Speaker Jay Lucas was sworn in Tuesday to lead the chamber for another two years. The Hartsville Republican,  who has been speaker since 2014, vowed to prioritize education reform. Seanna Adcox/Staff 

COLUMBIA — The leader of the South Carolina House pledged Tuesday to push for legislation next year that overhauls the way the state funds public schools, saying children's futures demand immediate action.

"It's time to face reality in education," Speaker Jay Lucas told his colleagues from the podium after they re-elected the Hartsville Republican to one of the state's most powerful positions. 

"Without significant reforms, our students won't have a future," he said. "It's time to change the educational model in South Carolina, and I look forward to working with each of you to do that this legislative session." 

His comments follow The Post and Courier's "Minimally Adequate" series, which lays out how gaping disparities, widespread segregation and a history of low expectations have helped make South Carolina’s public school system one of the nation’s worst. The series also detailed how these shortcomings have left thousands of students unprepared for college or work after high school, posing a threat to the state's prosperity while it is in the midst of an economic rebirth. 

In the series' wake, lawmakers vowed to tackle education reform in the coming session, with talk of boosting teacher pay, retooling South Carolina’s antiquated school funding formulas and giving more money to poor districts to repair rundown buildings. Gov. Henry McMaster's office also indicated that he intends to make education a high priority in his State of the State address and executive budget. 

The state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature in 2014 to fix the education system to give poor, rural students a chance at success. But lots of meetings and debate over what to do failed to lead to any significant changes before the high court — with two new judges — dismissed the case last year. 

Lucas, first elected speaker in 2014, said the time for reform is now.

"This body must take immediate action to increase the number of citizens who are ready to fill the jobs that today’s and tomorrow's economy demands," he said.

The entire House responded with a standing ovation. Legislators are in Columbia to reorganize ahead of the legislative session that kicks off Jan. 8. 

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, has said he hopes legislation advances to the House floor before February. His budget-writing committee is crafting a proposal using a recently released analysis of the state's education funding that White requested last year from state economists.  

That legislation will focus on "getting more money to the classroom and reforming the way dollars flow," House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said last week. 

The current system involves a maze of funding formulas dating to 1977. In its education series, The Post and Courier revealed that the state currently shortchanges the minimum funding required through its oldest formula by roughly $500 million. What's more, the system has grown so complex many lawmakers don't understand how it works. 

Whether reform means more money remains unclear.

"More money per student does not necessarily equate to a better education," Simrill said. "Spending the money wisely is key."

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who temporarily led the House on Tuesday before Lucas was re-elected, said she's hopeful Lucas' pledge translates to real results.

"I'd rather see a sermon than hear one," said Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg and the chamber's longest-serving member at nearly 27 years. 

"Let's not study the issue anymore. It's been studied to death. Now is the time for an investment in our children's future."

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.