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Scoppe: As the SC Senate debates vouchers, a plan to fix the schools we own

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South Carolina's 79 school boards would be replaced with 16, which would be stripped of most of their power under a smart set of bills introduced by Rep. Neal Collins. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

S.C. Rep. Neal Collins has a school reform proposal for everybody to hate.

For school board members, there’s his plan to, in his words, neuter the boards — take away their authority over everything except student discipline hearings.

For superintendents, and most legislators, there’s the bill that lets an official appointed by the governor hire and fire superintendents.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

For school administrators, there’s having to pay teachers extra to do non-classroom work.

Actually, I’m not seeing a lot of reason for teachers to be upset by the 22 education bills he prefiled in the run-up to this year’s legislative session, but for the loud and growing cadre of people who think teachers are the devil, there’s the plan to let teachers elect their principals.

For helicopter parents, there’s banning cellphone use in the classroom.

For pretty much the entire education establishment, there’s ending grade inflation and holding back kids who are two grade levels behind in math or reading.

For people in well-off districts, there’s replacing local school property taxes with one statewide levy that’s distributed according to need. That’s one that people who don’t trust the Legislature to fund schools adequately can hate as well.

And for practically every community in our state, since everybody thinks district consolidation equals school closing, there’s my second favorite: consolidating our unwieldy and wasteful 79 school districts into 16.

Centralizing education

Some of the bills are more important than others, but all are designed to advance Mr. Collins’ vision of centralizing public education in South Carolina, while empowering teachers so we can convince enough people to teach.

In a state where the quality of education kids are offered is inextricably linked to where they live, it’s an idea that’s long overdue.

I would have started with the state constitution, which obligates the Legislature to provide a decent education to all children, to explain why centralization is needed. Mr. Collins offers the pandemic as illustration.

“When we returned face to face after COVID, we had 79 school districts doing 79 different things,” he told me. “Our local one started back in August, and we ultimately had to make three school districts go back in April. Whatever you think was the right approach, how it could be that inconsistent is just an example of everything we do in education. Everything.”

Abortion South Carolina

S.C. Rep. Neal Collins (AP Photo/James Pollard)

The Pickens County Republican, who serves on the Education Oversight Committee (which one of his bills would abolish, along with the State Board of Education), said one reason he offered the package this year was that he finally understands our schools well enough and has gained enough credibility on the topic. His other reason has to do with what was going on in the Senate when we talked on Thursday.

“I’m concerned about our focus on private schools and religious schools, when no matter what happens with vouchers, 90-plus percent of our kids are going to be in public education,” he said. “I wanted to give a view of, ‘Hey: There are things we can do in public education and we need to.’”

Amen to that.

The biggest support for paying parents to abandon the public schools — and this is me talking now — comes from legislators who say, “Public schools are hopeless failures” after never even seriously trying to make the most obvious changes needed to fix them. Like getting rid of the too-often self-serving school boards that oversee them. And taking over schools and districts that aren’t getting the job done. And providing the best teachers to the struggling students, rather than the worst. And making it easier to get rid of the teachers who don’t need to be teachers. And recognizing that it takes more money to get those best teachers to teach the neediest kids.

Voucher alternative

Mr. Collins’ package of bills is designed not only to draw attention to what the Legislature can do to improve public education but also to awaken his fellow public education supporters. “If you’re so upset about getting attacked by vouchers, there’s probably a reason for that,” he said, “and we need to look in the mirror (to see) what we’re doing and what needs to change.”

He would like to make the entire state one district, but he knows that’s a non-starter (not that any of his bills have much hope in the short term), so he settled on aligning his consolidated districts with the state’s 16 technical colleges, which he wants working more closely with the schools. That step alone would drastically reduce the number of too-small districts (although one bizarre effect would be to leave Williamsburg County alone as a district), which reduces administrative overhead and increases the talent pool for each school board seat.

Even more important (and therefore my favorite idea) is stripping school boards of the authority to hire and fire superintendents, and turning that duty over to an Office of School Districts Administration in the governor’s office.

With all the superintendents reporting to one director, there would be effectively one person making the policy decisions that are now made by 79 superintendents who are trying to answer to 700 or so sometimes-responsible and sometimes-not school board members.

Oh, and about the teacher recruitment part: Mr. Collins argues, correctly, that the most important thing we need to do is treat teachers like the professionals we claim to consider them. In his mind, that means eliminating the requirement that they be recertified, eliminating non-teaching duties, giving them expanded paid parental leave, offering more generous scholarships for would-be teachers, requiring each school to run a disciplinary class to which they can send unruly students, eliminating the State School Board (which strips them of teaching credentials if they move mid-year) and that idea of letting teachers elect the principal, because “I want them to be in charge, not principals.”

That’s his one big idea that gives me pause. But if he could pass his other proposals — or even just consolidating the districts and neutering the school boards — I’d be more than happy to give it a try. As should we all.

Get a weekly recap of South Carolina opinion and analysis from The Post and Courier in your inbox on Monday evenings.


Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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