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More than 200 people protested Charleston County's teacher evaluation method in May 2017. While grassroots efforts to improve education thrive at the local level through South Carolina, the lack of statewide advocacy groups hamper efforts to achieve school reform, experts say. File/Wade Spees/Staff

In 1995, grassroots advocates from across the Southeast gathered in Columbia to talk about education reform. It seemed an ideal location, given that South Carolina’s schools were on the rise after a period of sweeping legislative transformation.

The participants hailed from six Southern states with similar histories, needs and challenges. Seeing the potential value of collaboration, they formed a new group to confront education issues from a regional perspective. In a nod to their host city, they adopted its name for their new enterprise.

A quarter-century later, the Columbia Group has grown to seven states and continues to meet regularly to identify problems, formulate strategies and tackle issues facing the South as a whole.

But one key player has been missing from the group for years: South Carolina, the place where it all started.

The Palmetto State’s representatives dropped out sometime in the early 2000s as reform efforts here began to flag and the public school system began its long and steady slide to the bottom of the national rankings. Their absence is further evidence of South Carolina’s lack of a cohesive statewide organization singularly focused on fixing the K-12 school system.

It's one of the few Southern states without such a group. 

Each of the Columbia Group’s member states has a statewide organization that pushes politicians and policymakers to tend to its schools’ needs. South Carolina, however, has a fractured chorus of voices on education representing a host of different interests, agendas and constituencies.

Some groups focus on business and workplace needs. Others push the interests of teachers and school administrators. Still others promote charter schools and school choice. Though several groups pursue a more holistic agenda, they do so at the local, county or regional level, with little coordination or opportunity to effect change across South Carolina.

The result is a fragmented approach that often leads to piecemeal changes that do little to solve the deep, underlying problems that hamstring the public school system, said Terry Peterson, the architect of education reforms under former Gov. Richard Riley in the early 1980s.

“We don’t have any established, well-known statewide grassroots education, parent and citizen group raising Cain about these terrible circumstances and offering strategies, funding and initiatives to start on pathways to sustained progress,” he said.

There is talk of changing that dynamic in the wake of The Post and Courier’s five-part series "Minimally Adequate," which laid out how gaping disparities have left thousands of students unprepared for college or the modern workforce after high school. Advocates say the series sparked renewed interest in reform and broader approaches to improving schools.

“You’re starting to see efforts that reach across those geographic lines with a larger perspective,” said Ansel Sanders, president and CEO of Public Education Partners, a Greenville foundation that advocates for 76,000 students in the state’s largest district.

Sanders is interested in exploring collaboration with similar advocacy groups in other regions, as are members of Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, a Lowcountry-based education collective, and the nonprofit Spartanburg Academic Movement in the Upstate. Meanwhile, South Carolina Future Minds, a Florence-based nonprofit, is positioning itself to become a statewide voice for education in the coming legislative session, Executive Director Caroline Mauldin said.

Potential solutions abound in the many reports issued by legislative task forces, study committees and other groups, Mauldin said. The key will be to bring the various constituencies together in support of evidence-based spending and solutions that serve students, she said.

“The challenge is that now it’s sitting in a PDF,” she said, referring to the various education studies now gathering dust. “We already know what we need to do.”

Regional cooperation 

Comprehensive education reform in South Carolina has largely stalled since the 1980s, when Riley won the backing of the business community to push the Legislature to make improvements. Key among them was the Education Improvement Act, which funded a variety of innovations, including a half-day program for impoverished 4-year-olds.

The gains that followed drew national interest, and the momentum inspired other nascent reform efforts, including the A+ Education Partnership in Alabama. That nonpartisan group would later join with others to form the Columbia Group after that initial meeting in South Carolina’s capital.

John Dornan, a retired former director of the nonprofit Public School Forum of North Carolina, was a driving force in setting up the Columbia Group. The informal network proved to be an invaluable resource that helped spawn statewide advocacy groups in Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana, as well, he said.

"We routinely shared (and copied) programs being run in our states," Dornan said in an email. "We would call on representatives of other state groups to testify on bills under consideration in our state, and frequently we were asked to reciprocate."

An education council affiliated with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce served as South Carolina's representative to the group, which met once or twice a year to share ideas and concerns, according to a 2000 report from the Bell South Foundation, which provided funding. At some point, the Palmetto State's contingent stopped participating, though exactly why and when this happened remains a bit murky.

The Columbia Group, however, soldiered on and grew as new states joined the discussion (at one point, nine states were involved). Last year, the group issued a report highlighting a number of successful reform strategies around the South, along with a poll that showed broad support for addressing disparities among public schools in the region, including South Carolina.

"The exchange has really been helpful as a group of Southern states that deal with similar issues from an economic, resources and socio-economic standpoint," said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of Kentucky's Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "We are certainly stronger together when we can lean on and be a resource for one another."

She and other members said they would welcome South Carolina rejoining the organization if a statewide advocacy group emerges. 

"It is strange that they aren't involved, because obviously they share so much of the same history and issues that we face," said Keith Poston, who now leads the Public School Forum of North Carolina. "It would be great. I'm just not familiar with any efforts there now."

South Carolina's Peterson was an early pioneer of regional collaboration. After leaving his post in the governor’s office in 1982, he headed the S.C. Business Education Partnership, the largest statewide advocacy effort in recent decades. 

The group was state funded, leaving it to the whims of political leaders. That ultimately proved to be its undoing. After the partnership released a report in 1992 that was critical of South Carolina's progress toward meeting certain educational goals, powerful politicians pushed back and restocked the group with appointees whose views were more to their liking, Peterson said. 

"That is why any long-term successful education advocacy group needs to be independent," he said. "Certainly they should welcome suggestions of needed education changes and funding proposals from the governor, state superintendent and legislative leaders — but they should not be controlled by them."

The Columbia Group's members largely operate on that model. North Carolina's group, for instance, gets less than 4 percent of its funding from the state, giving it the freedom to speak out without fear of political reprisals. Among other things, the group hosts a statewide, weekly television show that highlights key education issues.

Kentucky's Prichard Committee is completely independent of state government, so it can work as either a collaborator or an agitator, depending on the situation. In recent months, it has challenged new graduation requirements adopted by the Kentucky Board of Education and called for action to stave off declines in state educational improvements. 

"We are able to really provide a pure citizen voice, which I think is powerful," Ramsey said. 

Efforts to unite

Sanders, the Greenville foundation head, has spent a lot of time wondering why South Carolina doesn’t have a robust statewide education advocate. Ultimately, he blames the state’s culture of bottom-up government and control, with a powerful legislative branch that tends to push local interests above statewide change.

“In South Carolina, there’s a real kind of push for local control, and that has persisted when it comes to education reform and advocacy efforts,” Sanders said. “The temptation to pivot locally is very strong.”

That local-first mentality was further exacerbated when state lawmakers began to underfund the minimum spending requirements for education — a gap that currently stands at $500 million. Wealthier school districts supplanted much of that money through special sales taxes and the generosity of local businesses while less prosperous areas fell further behind.

“It’s a story of the haves and have-nots in a lot of ways,” Sanders said.

As "Minimally Adequate" revealed, those widening disparities have created a state where a third of high school juniors don’t have the basic skills they need to get a modern job. This leaves businesses struggling to find qualified workers to fill skilled jobs — a condition that threatens South Carolina’s continued prosperity.

John Read, a former plant manager who now heads the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, said current advocacy efforts aren’t enough to push the needle on systemic changes needed to correct this situation. The state needs more than piecemeal efforts that benefit one cause or another, he said.

“The best thing that could happen now is for those of us already at work to join together and form a coalition,” Read said. “Otherwise, this gets dropped into the laps of a dozen legislators without a clue what to do.”

Ryan Brown, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Superintendent Molly Spearman already works with myriad groups and constituencies, and she would surely be open to working with a larger coalition, as well. But Brown said he’s not sure that is what’s needed. It might be more productive if the business and education groups that already exist could mount a unified effort to back long-needed reforms, such as raising teacher pay to meet the southeastern standard. 

“We know what the issues are. We just need all these groups to get on the same page and say, 'We need to make these changes,' ” he said. “When we get to that point, it can be really effective.”

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Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."

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