Possible solutions: Improving education

Davon Wilder's attention is on a book in the hallway during a class change at Scott's Branch High School in Summerton. District Superintendent Rose Wilder says, “Where the eyes go, so goes the attention.” She wants the students' eyes on education.

Problem: South Carolina's children consistently lag behind those in most other states in their educational performance. Multiple factors are responsible for this, but one of the main ones is the failure of the state to make quality public education a priority.

Currently the only educational requirement for the state is to provide a “minimally adequate, open and public education.”

Solution: Amend the constitution to require that the state provide a high-quality public education. Define what that means and create a funding system that devotes the necessary state resources to that goal.

In her State of the State address in January, Gov. Nikki Haley called for a conversation with legislators to find a way to improve funding for the state's poorer schools.

In that address she said, “We do have to figure out a better way to bring up the schools in the poorer parts of our state, and history shows that we cannot count on their own depressed local tax bases and restrictive federal dollars to do it.”

However, Haley offered no plan or ideas.

Former Gov. Richard Riley said last year that it will take much more than a conversation. “We really need a movement toward focusing on education. ... If we're going to do anything for education, everybody in the state has to be into it. We have to change our culture.”

Problem: The inadequate tax bases of many I-95 Corridor and Mill Crescent counties do not properly support local public education. A 2009 study of the I-95 Corridor by Francis Marion University and South Carolina State University found that “there can be no doubt that the state has failed to provide most of the children of the I-95 Corridor counties with the educational opportunities provided in other parts of the state, and in most other parts of the country.”

Solution: One partial solution is to increase state taxes to provide money for poor districts to pay for the teachers, administrators and tools they need. Two potential sources for extra money would be state taxes on tobacco and gasoline, which are among the lowest in the country. Money from the state lottery that goes to subsidize college education for students from middle- and upper-income families also could be diverted.

Another partial solution would be to return to the public school districts the power to levy property taxes on homeowners. An increase in the state sales tax was supposed to compensate for this loss, but sales taxes are less stable than property taxes and have been especially unreliable during the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Problem: Many poor children come to school ill-prepared to learn.

Solution: Under court order, the state is supposed to do more to provide pre-K education to 4-year-olds, especially in the state's poor counties, but the ruling sets no specific requirements.

Since that order was issued in 2005, the state started pilot pre-K programs in 35 of the state's 83 school districts. The annual cost to the state for those Child Development Education Pilot Programs is $17.3 million, about what it costs to build four miles of a rural interstate highway. Many of the districts were among those that sued the state in 1993, claiming it did not provide enough money and support for struggling schools. A final ruling is pending in the state Supreme Court.

The state could make considerable progress in helping prepare children for school by quickly expanding the pre-K pilot program to all school districts. Even if that costs five times what the pilot program does, it would pale in comparison with the $558 million the state plans to spend to build the seven-mile-long I-526 extension across James and Johns islands.

Problem: Teacher turnover and a lack of quality teachers are stumbling blocks. State officials say that in some rural counties, 40 percent of core courses were taught by what educators rated as lower-quality teachers.

Solution: The state could provide extra money for struggling school districts to establish cash incentives and higher salaries to lure high-caliber teachers to the I-95 Corridor and Mill Crescent. The state could set up an extensive scholarship program that would pay for college if a graduating teacher would commit to staying in one of the stressed school districts for a set number of years.

Expand the 2-year-old Teach for America program that recruits promising young teachers to work in poor and rural schools. The program currently has 113 teachers working in the I-95 Corridor and Charleston County.

Create a state-financed pool of teacher specialists to provide advanced placement and remedial courses in struggling schools.

Problem: Some districts lack money for teachers, school buildings and other resources. For example, Allendale Elementary School was built in 1956 and its roof leaks. “It rains in here,” Principal Sheila Leath said.

The district regularly places buckets in classrooms and hallways and patches the holes, but the district lacks the money to install a new roof or replace the school. The district also doesn't have enough money to offer Advanced Placement classes.

Solution: Provide more direct financial aid from the state. Consolidate school districts in counties that contain multiple school districts. Some countywide school districts would still have small populations and lack tax bases, such as Allendale with just 1,400 students.

To help provide more resources, the state could pass legislation to enable countywide school districts to consolidate with other counties. The state also could provide monetary incentives to districts that consolidate. Many small school districts resist consolidation for multiple reasons, such as maintaining local schools, sports games, traditions and local control.

Fred Carter, president of Francis Marion University, says racism is another reason for resistance to consolidation. “The lyrics of the tune may be decentralization, but the tune is Dixie,” he says.

Problem: Many students return to school after summer vacation each year having done little to enhance or retain what they learned the previous school year, and spend the first few weeks making up for what they forgot.

Solution: Districts could end lengthy summer vacations and convert to all-year sessions. This also would benefit poor students by ensuring that many receive at least two nutritional meals a day.

Problem: In many rural counties, about one-fourth to one-third of all adults 25 and older lack high school diplomas. The 2011 report “America's Health Rankings” lists South Carolina 47th in the percentage of high school students who graduate within four years of starting high school.

Solution: Expand adult education, literacy programs and outreach for such programs. Expand the programs and outreach to churches and unemployment centers.

Problem: Some poor school districts lose substantial numbers of students, especially white, better-off and better-performing students, to nearby school districts.

Solution: Nullify a state law created in the early 1960s during resistance to racial integration of the public schools. The law allowed children to attend classes in any other district for several reasons. Among them was if the child owned a piece of land in the other district with an assessed value of $300 or more.