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Editorial: Don't want to lose SC military bases? Try a little enlightened self-interest.

210119-M-GA002-1178 (copy) (copy)

With some S.C. politicians insisting that the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island is in danger of being closed, state lawmakers should focus more on an overlooked ingredient to the "military-friendly" title our state covets: good public schools. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Godfrey Ampong/Provided

After South Carolina lost the Charleston Naval Base and Naval Shipyard and the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in the 1990s, state leaders got organized to guard against future rounds of Base Realignment and Closure.

The Pentagon provided states with wish lists of laws that would help them earn the coveted “military friendly” title. South Carolina already checked a lot of the boxes, and over the years the governor and other top officials have pushed for more — and the Legislature has passed more — to keep us in the generals’ good graces.

Military leaders said they wanted service members to be able to pay in-state tuition to attend S.C. colleges, and the Legislature granted their wish. They wanted surviving spouses to receive the same property tax exemption on vehicles that disabled veterans received, and the Legislature complied. And the list went on.

Most recently, the Legislature passed a bill last year to let cosmetologists, physical therapists, nurses and other professionals licensed in other states work temporarily in South Carolina while their spouses are assigned here, checking another item off the list.

Somehow, though, we never paid much attention to the military’s interest in good schools.

But according to The Post and Courier’s Thomas Novelly, one of South Carolina’s highest ranking military leaders recently told Charleston business leaders that our state’s poor reputation for education is worrisome because it's turning off active-duty airmen and retired service members.

Col. Marc Greene, commander of the 628th Air Base Wing and Joint Base Charleston, didn’t actually say South Carolina could suffer in the next round of BRAC as a result, but other military leaders have left no doubt that they consider subpar schools a threat to military recruitment and preparedness. Service members are more likely to leave the military when their children are stuck in bad schools.

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As Mr. Novelly reports, the former secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force told the National Governors Association in a 2018 letter that the Defense Department “will encourage leadership to consider the quality of schools near bases and whether reciprocity of professional licenses is available for military families when evaluating future basing or mission alternatives.”

To be fair, you can’t just snap your fingers and fix our schools. Our schools aren’t doing a good enough job because of generations of inadequate leadership, inadequate laws and inadequate funding.

And simply fixing the schools near military bases — which tend to be particularly bad, because they tend to be in low-income neighborhoods — isn’t the answer. Military leaders look at state rankings, not individual schools, when making decisions about which states are military friendly.

The Legislature continued to make progress this year on a menu of reforms that should improve our schools, and the 2021-22 state budget will include hefty raises for teachers — although pay was so far behind that it’s unlikely to be enough to stem the growing teacher shortage.

So lawmakers have to keep plugging away at that, and at nip-and-tuck reforms working their way through the process — and at expanding pre-kindergarten programs, which will make more difference than all the other improvements combined. Most of all, our lawmakers need the unshakable commitment to improving our schools that too many still haven’t developed.

One reason to provide a good education to all S.C. children is moral, which you either buy or you don't. The other reason involves enlightened self-interest, which no rational person dismisses: When we don’t provide children with a good education, they can grow up to be a drain on society. They end up in dead-end jobs, relying on government support to care for their families. Or they turn to crime, and either we have to pay more for police and courts and prisons to protect ourselves from them or else we become their victims. Or both.

To that self-interest argument we can now add another point: If South Carolina doesn’t do a better job of educating the next generation, we could lose military bases to states that do, creating another self-inflicted blow to our economy.

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