The schools and school districts that are failing so many kids in South Carolina aren’t going to fix themselves. It doesn’t matter how much more money we give them. Or how much we free them from what they consider burdensome state requirements. Or what other changes we make that school board members, principals and teachers insist are needed.
Yes, it takes a certain amount of money to deliver a decent education — and it tends to take more money to deliver that education to kids from the poorest families, in the poorest communities, who start off way behind better-off kids. And in some cases, we aren’t providing enough.
Yes, some standardized testing can create perverse incentives, and some regulations can be a waste of time at best and harmful at worst.
And no, there’s no one solution to all that ails education in South Carolina.
But it’s hard to dismiss state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman’s argument that central to any fix is buttressing the state’s ability to intervene — and intervene effectively — in struggling schools.
That’s why it was so disappointing when the Senate jettisoned reforms to governance in a vain attempt to get the House-passed reform bill passed during this year’s regular legislative session. And it’s why it was so encouraging to see Senate leaders take up the matter again Monday, with a pledge to work out the details and have those essential reforms ready to take up when the Legislature returns to work in January.
The proposal lawmakers discussed Monday would add a lot of requirements and deadlines for school boards to take actions designed to prevent schools from falling from below average to unsatisfactory, and then becoming chronically unsatisfactory. Most significantly and controversially, though, it would allow the governor to remove the school board in chronically underperforming districts and allow Ms. Spearman or her successors to temporarily take over management of the districts.
Critics have fixated on the fact that the House-passed bill would let the superintendent contract with charter schools and enter into public-private partnerships — actions they call privatizing schools. In fact, though, she already has that authority, through a temporary law that has to be renewed every year, and she has chosen not to use it in the three districts she is currently working to repair. But she reasonably wants to have as many options available as possible to do the extremely difficult work of repairing a district that has been failed by its management. The amendment the Senate’s special education subcommittee is considering would make the authority permanent, expand it to give superintendents more options for managing districts they take over and provide for that all-important school board removal.
As Ms. Spearman told senators, the biggest problem she sees in failing schools isn’t teachers who aren’t up to the job. It’s “that leadership piece of that support, in selecting the right superintendent, in selecting the right principals.” It’s school board members who are concerned about something other than providing the best education possible for the students. That’s why her department has to get those school boards out of the way to get things back on track.
Although there’s room to debate the details, the idea is pretty simple, and shouldn’t be controversial at all: Our priority has to be delivering a good education to all children in this state, regardless of how that affects the adults who keep failing them.