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Editorial: SC builds better planes and cars. Why don't we build better kids?

787-10 Dreamliner in assembly at North charleston (copy) (copy)

A 787-10 Dreamliner makes its way through the final assembly building at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus. David Wren/Staff/File

It’s hard to keep up with all the studies touting South Carolina as a great place to do business. The latest, from Area Development magazine, ranked South Carolina third-best overall in its 2019 Top States for Doing Business, behind only Georgia and Tennessee.

Whether you believe it’s education or economic development that comes first, the fact is that the two go hand in hand, and both are essential to our state. This year, the effort to improve education in our poorest communities through economic development got a boost from the unlikeliest of places: the new Panthers economic incentive law.

The magazine based its rankings on states’ objective and subjective scores on a dozen attributes. It found that South Carolina had the nation’s best business incentives and its second-best workforce development programs.

We finished third in shovel-ready sites, cooperative and responsive state government, favorable utility rates, speed of permitting and overall cost of doing business. We had the fourth most favorable regulatory environment and the fifth most competitive labor environment.

Pretty heady stuff.

But it raises the question: If we’re doing such a great job making ourselves a friendly place for businesses to locate and expand, why aren’t we better off?

Clearly, we are landing more than our share of big fish — with Boeing, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and practically every tire maker in the world, we’ve built aerospace and automotive industries pretty much from scratch in a generation. And smaller but still impressive businesses are announcing plans to open and expand here on a weekly basis. These are astonishing achievements.

And there can be a significant lag time between a company deciding it wants to move to South Carolina and actually hiring a workforce.

Still, our incomes lag. Our health is bad, our life expectancy low. We have high crime rates and low literacy rates.

That suggests we’re falling short somewhere.

The best way to make South Carolina prosper — to make it a place our children and grandchildren want to spend their lives, where businesses want to locate and expand and people from other places want to visit and make their own homes — is to make sure that children grow up to be productive citizens.

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If you haven’t already figured out where, just talk to S.C. business, community and political leaders, and they’ll tell you immediately: Our education system is holding us back.

Too few people graduate from college. Too few graduate from high school. Too many who do finish high school aren’t ready for a job or higher education. Too many third-graders can’t read. Too many kids aren’t enrolled in the preschool programs that would prepare them for success in kindergarten, and third grade, and high school, and college.

Although we have great workforce-training programs, we don’t have enough people who can complete those programs and meet the needs of the businesses moving to our state — businesses that are ready to pay the high wages and provide the attractive benefits to raise our average income and improve our health and enhance our quality of life. So we don’t attract as many good jobs as we should, given how competitive we look otherwise.

As Gov. Henry McMaster put it in his inaugural address in January: “Our success in today’s worldwide economic competition depends on our intellectual capacity, training, research and development, knowledge, innovation and imagination. In a word, on our brain power. That is why South Carolina’s commitment to education must be second to none in the United States.”

But it isn’t.

Lawmakers did act this year to approve the biggest pay raises for teachers in decades, along with money to put more mental health counselors and police in schools, and temporary relief from some standardized tests — all designed to stem the growing teacher shortage. But despite the governor’s encouragement, despite the House’s approval, the Senate adjourned for the year without passing legislation designed to attract and retain top teachers and increase the chance that those teachers will have supportive principals and superintendents and school board members, by making it easier for the state to intervene when districts fail to provide kids the education they need.

And that package didn’t even touch the truly significant changes we need, like overhauling a funding system that helps hold back poor communities, and providing early interventions — 4-year-old kindergarten, yes, but even earlier than that — for children who grow up in poverty and lack the stimulation that middle-class kids have, so they start school behind and get farther behind every year.

We’re already doing a great job with the traditional economic-development criteria. Improving our regulatory environment from fourth-friendliest in the nation to second-friendliest, or moving our best-in-the-nation economic incentives to best-plus-plus isn’t what’s going to move the needle on our health and wealth and happiness. Providing a decent education to all the children in our state … that’s how we make a difference.

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