The good news is that the Senate Education Committee finally signed off on the House’s big school reform bill, readying it for debate when the Legislature convenes in January. And it managed to keep intact the most important provisions: making it easier for the state to take over failing school districts.
Great teachers, Gov. Henry McMaster said Tuesday, in announcing his plan to raise S.C. teacher pay by $3,000 next year, “don’t want to do it for the money.” But, he continued, “they can’t do it without the money.”
Although some teachers are still calling for lawmakers to scrap the whole thing and start over — a self-defeating idea from the start — the fact is that when you combine H.3759 with this year’s teacher pay raises and the raises Gov. Henry McMaster and House leaders committed to earlier last week, you come out with significant improvements for teachers. Not sufficient, but significant.
Making it more attractive for our best and brightest to become and remain teachers is one of the most important things we can do to improve the education we provide to our next generation. Another is giving the Education Department more tools to help turn around struggling schools and districts, and to intervene if those efforts don’t work, and the bill does that.
But there’s also bad news: Thursday’s meeting made it clear how easy it could be to derail this entire effort, as senators offered up several additions that guarantee opposition. At the top of the list is a plan, added on a 8-5 vote, to let districts start the school year as early as the second Monday in August rather than the third Monday, as state law now requires.
Now, there are sound educational reasons to make it at least theoretically possible for schools to finish the first semester before Christmas, as this would do. And even more sound reasons to leave that decision to the school districts rather than having a statewide mandate. But sound reasoning doesn’t always count for a lot at the Statehouse.
Sen. Darrell Jackson complained — like he does whenever someone proposes a reform that’s smart rather than populist — that parents have never asked him why school can’t start earlier in August. Instead, he said, they ask why we can’t delay the school start until after Labor Day, and “that’s hard to answer.”
Actually, it’s pretty easy to answer: Finishing the first semester before Christmas means teachers don’t have to spend a lot of time catching students back up in January before they take semester exams, and students don’t have to spend the break worrying about a project that’s due or a test that’s looming in January. And if students fail their pre-Christmas exams, the break gives administrators time to rearrange class schedules to put those students back in the course they need to take again. Starting school earlier also allows students to receive more instruction before they have to take advanced placement tests and the SAT.
We know that the children who learn the most and do the best in school are the ones whose parents are their most important teachers. We know that teachers value parental involvement and respect more than just about anything — in many cases more than better pay and benefits.
Tell that to most parents, and they understand; they might not like it, but they accept it. Throw in the fact that the later school starts, the later it has to go into May, or June, and even more understand.
Luke Rankin, the Horry County senator who helped push through the late statewide start date more than a decade ago, and who insisted that this had nothing to do with the tourism industry’s need for cheap labor for as long as northern tourists were flocking to the Grand Strand, turned to a proponent of the change and said: You would trust school districts to set their own calendars, “but we’re not gonna trust them with … what’s required to be taught? You don’t trust them that much, right?”
Like explaining why school needs to start earlier, it was an incredibly easy question to answer: Yes, senator, I do trust school districts with some decisions, but not all decisions. Just like I trust the Legislature to set taxes, but I don’t intend to hand lawmakers control of my bank account and portfolio.
It takes more specialized services to educate a child who’s hearing-impaired than one who isn’t, more to educate a child with learning disabil…
Instead, Sen. Richard Cash explained that a consistent question he heard when he met with groups of superintendents, principals and teachers to listen to their concerns about the legislation was “why can’t we have a calendar that allows us to complete the semester before Christmas?” And “as opposed to some of those things we can’t control that come of out Washington, this is something we can control.”
And, yes, those are the best arguments defenders of the mandatory late-start date have. Because there’s simply not a good argument for forcing districts to start the school year on the Legislature’s schedule.
But passion can overcome logic, and often does in the Legislature, and Sens. Rankin and Jackson and their allies do have passion. Which makes it less than logical for education supporters to bog down the bill with this or other controversial measures that aren’t central to its purpose.