COLUMBIA — State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex wants South Carolina to stop talking about the problems in public schools and do something to fix them, and to that end he introduced a broad-based proposal Wednesday to the Senate Education Committee.
The proposal, which Rex dubbed "Begin in '10," calls for immediate flexibility for school districts to juggle budget constraints by furloughing teachers and cutting back on assessment tests for certain students.
Rex also wants to expand 4-year-old kindergarten to all at-risk children, make taxation rates uniform statewide and require money to follow students while allocating additional dollars for children who live in poverty.
The Legislature would have to buy into Rex's plan and put the proposals into law, and for now many of the ideas are short on details.
The Department of Education is trying to sell the plan to legislators, and it expects legislation to be introduced in the coming weeks, at which time more specifics should be available.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said at first blush many of Rex's ideas, such as choice within public schools and budgetary flexibility for districts, are realistic and would probably be well supported in the Legislature.
Changing the way public schools are funded is a long-term plan that most agree on, but building consensus on how to make the changes will be a struggle, Hayes said.
South Carolina continues to fund public schools the same way it did in 1973, with the Education Finance Act that measures the taxing ability of each county based on its appraised property.
The funding formula means wealthier districts, such as Charleston County, get less money, but the whole system has been complicated by a 2006 plan to swap property taxes for sales taxes.
Rex proposed a statewide rate to be implemented in 2011 based on total taxable property in the state, but he did not provide any more details Wednesday.
The idea drew swift criticism from Randy Page, president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a group that supports private school tax credits.
Page called the plan high-cost and out of touch, claims that Rex refuted.
The legislation also will call for an 11-member commission to study the tax structure and make recommendations within a year about ways to adequately and equitably tax residents. The commission is similar to study groups proposed in other legislative bills.
Rex said the plan does not come with a notable price tag, because any new costs will be offset by spending that would be phased out. The exception is $74 million to expand 4-year-old kindergarten to all at-risk children, but Rex said he would be revealing a plan to pay for that soon.
"We should act now to reform our state's broken tax and funding system so that as the economy recovers, we are organized and equipped to use our resources in ways that will move our state forward," Rex said in a statement.