News conference on education (copy)

Gov. Henry McMaster calls for big changes to improve public education during a news conference in his office on Feb. 20. Seanna Adcox/Staff

South Carolina ranks among the nation’s leaders in job creation, capital investment and economic growth over the past decade. The business community has celebrated those rankings with ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings across the state because they motivate us to keep building on South Carolina’s record-breaking momentum.

To that end, I travel the state to talk to business leaders and job creators every week. I hear the same concerns from many of them: While our economic development rankings have made steady gains, our public education ranking remains low — and that’s why it’s time to reform public education in South Carolina.

We have far too many students being left behind in our state. In the 2017-18 academic year, not even 1 out of 2 South Carolina students in grades 3–8 scored “Meets Expectations” or higher on the state’s accountability test in math or English language arts (ELA). Only 1 out of 3 students scored “Meets Expectations” or higher on both the math and ELA portions. Scores for minority students were significantly lower. Just providing more resources alone will not solve these problems.

The South Carolina House, led by Speaker Jay Lucas, deserves great credit for tackling education reform. Their proposal addresses some of the big problems that must be dealt with if we are going to move from “minimally adequate” to a system that works for all students. The business community is ready to work with lawmakers to make reform a reality.

We have to address real issues like teacher recruitment and retention, early childhood education, accountability for underperforming schools and districts, and school district consolidation.

We must strengthen initiatives like Read to Succeed to lift our students up from fourth-lowest in the nation in fourth-grade reading performance. In other states where Read to Succeed was implemented like Florida and Mississippi, students have made notable gains in reading performance. This bill improves South Carolina’s program by modeling it after these successful states, but unfortunately, the bill as amended no longer removes a loophole giving parents the ability to advance their child if he or she is not reading on grade level.

We also need to analyze what testing we can do without that won’t weaken accountability. Testing lets us know how a student is performing and how our students are doing compared to their peers in other states. Accountability and measuring performance are important if we are going to achieve improvement.

Finally, in certain areas, we are wasting too many resources on administration that should be going to the classroom. We have too many districts in the state with low or decreasing enrollment. They all individually spend money to have their own superintendent and back-office personnel, and bear the expense of a district office. It is long past time to consolidate the smaller, less-resourced districts.

The Post and Courier’s “Minimally Adequate” series has done a great job of framing the problems within our state’s education system. Policymakers have an opportunity this year to bring meaningful changes that truly benefit students. There is no one silver bullet or piece of legislation that will fix the entire system, but we must continually work toward making bold reforms.

Ted Pitts is president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.