South Carolina lawmakers are doing something they haven't done in years: trying to reshape the future of the state's education system.

House Speaker Jay Lucas is leading the charge for school reform, and he has proposed a sweeping set of changes that could force several school districts to merge and put even more at risk of a state takeover.

It also seeks to reset the state's dismal reputation for education and unwind a legacy of low expectations. Those pitfalls have hobbled the state for decades, The Post and Courier's “Minimally Adequate” series found in the fall.

The 84-page plan is certain to change, and its most drastic provisions are years away. But in its current form, it puts scores of schools and more than a dozen districts on notice. The bill calls for small districts to combine with their neighbors, and it would require the state to step in when schools and districts post poor results year after year.

Debate over the bill has stoked fears among teachers and stirred questions about what an overhaul might look like. The Post and Courier set out to understand some of the most significant implications of Lucas' proposal as it stands today.

1. Which districts would have to consolidate?

The overhaul bill is mostly designed to give low-performing districts a chance to turn things around, but in the smallest districts, changes would come more swiftly. Lucas’ proposal calls for small school districts to merge, on the theory they spend more per student on administration. Small districts also often struggle to provide services like career centers that larger ones can afford more easily.

The bill currently calls for any district with fewer than 1,000 students to combine with another district in their county. Eight districts fall below that student population threshold this year, but one of them — McCormick County — is already a countywide district, so it's not affected by this provision. 

The bill would require the state Department of Education to draw up a broader consolidation plan, however, floating the possibility of a “regional school district” that cuts across county lines. That plan would look at districts with fewer than 1,500 students, which would incorporate five additional districts. Those same 13 districts already must share administrative services as required by a law approved last year. 

The fate for other small school districts is more clear: School districts in Bamberg, Barnwell and Hampton counties would be forced to combine. Clarendon 1 in Summerton, Greenwood 51 in Ware Shoals and Florence 4 in Timmonsville would also have to merge with a neighbor.

2. What school districts would be at risk of a state takeover?

The most drastic measures in South Carolina’s education overhaul bill call for the state to eventually take over the state’s longest-struggling schools. And in districts where lots of students go to schools with the worst ratings, the state would hand over management to either a neighboring school district, an existing charter school operator or a new district composed of struggling schools.

The criteria for a district takeover are relatively simple: If a majority of students go to schools rated “unsatisfactory” or “below average” — the bottom quarter of schools last year, based on state report cards — the district would be put in a “state of emergency.” If the district fails to improve and stays in "emergency" status for four consecutive years, it would cease to exist. The district would dissolve, and the school board would be fired.

South Carolina school ratings returned only last year year after a several-year hiatus, so there’s no way to know which school districts would be takeover candidates under the changes.

The state has been able to take over schools and districts since the 1998 Education Accountability Act. Superintendent Molly Spearman has declared states of emergency and taken over management of three districts since 2017 under authority legislators have expanded over the last several years.

Last year’s school ratings show which districts would be on notice under the bill. In all, 19 districts had a majority of students in struggling schools. If the bill passes, these are the districts that would be put on notice.

School districts on the hot seat

*The Allendale, Florence 4 and Williamsburg school districts have already been taken over by the state.

**Orangeburg County’s school districts are combining later this year.

District Percentage of students in "unsatisfactory" or "below average" schools
Lee County 79%
Florence 4 (Timmonsville) 78%
Orangeburg 3 (Holly Hill)** 74%
Chester County 73%
Barnwell 29 (Williston) 71%
Laurens 55 (Laurens) 71%
Lexington 4 (Swansea) 71%
Florence 2 (Pamplico) 69%
Clarendon 2 (Manning) 67%
Colleton County 65%
Orangeburg 5 (Orangeburg)** 64%
Florence 3 (Lake City) 62%
Allendale County* 61%
S.C. Public Charter School District 61%
Clarendon 1 (Summerton) 59%
Marlboro County 52%
Marion County 51%
McCormick County 51%
Williamsburg County 50%

3. What about individual schools?

The Lucas plan would also force the state to make bold changes to the lowest-performing schools, no matter what district they sit in. Any school that gets the worst ranking of “unsatisfactory” in three of four years would either be taken over, or its students would be transferred to a higher-performing school in the district.  

The state superintendent would decide who would run each school, and the school would be “reconstituted,” meaning the superintendent could fire and hire "the principal, faculty, and staff," according to the latest version of the bill. The bill initially required the entire staff, including teachers, to reapply for their jobs or move on — an option the superintendent's had through state law, but never used, since 2009.

The superintendent could pick who runs the school. The proposal doesn’t specify, but if the turnaround is successful, management would be returned to the districts.

Because state report cards grades returned only last year, takeovers under the bill wouldn’t start for a few years. Dozens of schools would be on notice in the meantime, giving them a chance to improve. Roughly a tenth of the state’s public schools — just over 100 — received the "unsatisfactory" label last year.

South Carolina wouldn’t be the first state to create a school district with the state’s lowest-performing schools, as the bill creates a Transformation School District. Other Southern states, like Tennessee, have tried the idea, too, and they’ve had only limited success. In fact, researchers have found that the biggest gains in Tennessee’s low-performing schools came before the state stepped in. That’s because local districts raced to improve their results, hoping to avoid a takeover.

4. Are drastic changes in struggling schools going to scare off good teachers?

South Carolina would hardly be the first to try overhauling its longest-struggling schools by trying to give them a clean slate. That’s what the proposed overhaul bill, as well as existing law, means by “reconstitution” — the ability to fire leaders, faculty and staff and get a fresh start. The theory is that a broken system needs a new start, not incremental change.

But researchers have found checkered results in other places. The threat of a drastic takeover often sends teachers packing, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the National Education Association, a teachers’ union. The threat can also kick administrators and teachers into high gear, but more effort doesn’t always translate to better outcomes if structural problems aren’t addressed.

“The evidence to date suggests that school reconstitution is, at best, a risky strategy,” the NEA-funded study found. “Its actual effects may harm rather than help struggling schools.”

The study suggests that if policymakers move to clean house, they should make sure they have a new group of educators ready to swoop in and they should give the school resources to make it a “magnet” for top-notch teachers.

That suggestion is echoed by another, more recent study by University of Southern California researchers. They found that students made modest gains in the first year of a jump-started school, but the results diminished over time. Giving the schools’ new leaders more flexibility and relatively modest, achievable goals also seemed to help, the researchers found.

5. Is this bill going to cut testing or end up piling on?

The education bill calls for schools to send their students home each year with a rating of how well they read and do math. The idea is to give students and their parents a steady benchmark of how they’re doing.

But as it was initially written, the proposal raised fears among teachers that it would result in even more tests distracting from their lesson plans.

The Education Department says it can calculate benchmark scores from the tests state law already requires, like end-of-course exams and annual tests measuring students against state standards. And in high school, the ACT and SAT tests can also generate baseline scores, known as "lexile" scores for reading and "quantile" scores for math.

The bill calls for four state-standardized tests to be cut, as well. The bill would put an end to high-stakes tests for social studies in fifth and seventh grades, eighth-grade science and high-school U.S. history. Those tests aren't required by the federal government, allowing the state to scrap them.

While teachers generally support a reduction in testing, social studies teachers worry that ending tests in their subjects could lead to a reduction in teaching, too. They say that’s a consequence of a culture of high-stakes testing — that administrators will only value what is tested. Responding to that fear, legislators inserted a requirement to embed social studies standards in reading and writing tests.

Still, the overhaul bill does call for one set of new assessments: Under the Lucas proposal, the state would require schools to screen their youngest students — from kindergarten to the third grade — for problems with reading, counting and basic math. That section expands on a law passed last year require dyslexia screenings in kindergarten through second grade, starting next school year. The bill asks state officials to approve up to five tests districts could choose from that minimize disruption to classrooms.

6. Does this bill do anything to change South Carolina’s “minimally adequate” legal standard for education?

South Carolina’s constitution sets a low bar for its public schools. It requires only that students have the opportunity to receive a “minimally adequate” education, a standard interpreted by the state Supreme Court in 1999.

Those words have hung over the state in the decades since because the state constitution doesn’t set a specific standard. The court’s language also inspired the title for The Post and Courier’s “Minimally Adequate” series, which found that gaping inequities and the legacy of segregation still echo through the state’s schools.

Lucas’ education overhaul bill wouldn’t change that. The legislation doesn’t call for a new constitutional standard. But it does open with a new mission statement for the state’s education system, which it calls a “student bill of rights.”

It says that students should expect to have a governor and a Legislature that are “responsive” to the needs of education. It says they should expect an education that meets their needs with “highly qualified teachers” and “well-maintained” buildings. And it says they should be able to go to a school they aren’t zoned for if that’s what it takes to “meet their individual needs and aspirations.”

The Legislature could still consider a constitutional amendment this year, however. Three separate bills have been filed to ask voters whether the constitution should guarantee a “high-quality education allowing each student to reach his highest potential.”

None has gotten a hearing this year, but similar measures have won high-profile backers in the past. Last year, for instance, an identical bill was co-sponsored by Lucas and the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, Rita Allison. It didn't clear committee.

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

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team, a native of Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His career at the newspaper started on the business desk in 2016.