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After 8 weeks of debate, SC senators pass bill that aims to start fixing K-12 education

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Senate powwow

Senators of both parties huddle on the chamber floor Tuesday, March 3, 2020, to try to reach a compromise on an amendment to the education bill. Seanna Adcox/Staff 

COLUMBIA — A compromise on school start dates cleared the way Wednesday for South Carolina state senators to give key approval to a massive education reform bill that's consumed the first eight weeks of the session.

The Senate voted 41-4 on a bill that makes changes not only in K-12 schools, but also in teacher preparation, school board accountability and college scholarships. Another vote, expected Thursday, would send the bill to the House, which passed its own version last year. 

"We have begun a conversation on education that’s been wanting for decades," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said. "We do not with this bill solve every problem. There is much more work to be done, but we are making a significant step, and we’ve done that in large part on a bipartisan basis to make these progressive changes."

Lawmakers in both chambers, as well as Gov. Henry McMaster, pledged to work on fixing South Carolina's education woes following The Post and Courier's five-part Minimally Adequate series in November 2018 that laid out how K-12 schools are failing to prepare thousands of students for college or the workforce.

Minimally adequate Day 4: Legislators spin their wheels on education for decades

But after months of revisions, the Senate bill is very different than the House's. The Senate version, for example, eliminates the state's education oversight board, which the House almost certainly won't agree to do. Reaching a compromise to send to McMaster's desk will be difficult. 

If the chambers can't agree in the next few months, the education package would die, and new legislation would have to be introduced next year. But many fear that would kill the momentum for any reform. 

Sen. Mike Fanning, the freshman Democrat who's been fighting the legislation, continued to argue it does nothing to help teachers. And he dared his colleagues to find a teacher to say anything in it would benefit their classroom. He's argued since January 2019, when bills were jointly filed in both chambers, that they should be scrapped and the whole effort start over.

Taking his cue, the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed took to social media to complain senators "failed the children of this state. It's a shameful day in South Carolina." The group, which organized last May's 10,000-strong protest, has threatened to organize another massive protest in the coming weeks. 

But other teacher advocacy groups applauded the Senate's work and provisions added since January. Those include doubling teacher supply stipends to $550, restoring additional pay for teachers who receive a national credential, requiring a 30-minute daily break for elementary school teachers and barring administrators from assigning teachers to non-classroom duties.

"That's a big thing for teachers. … There are things we want in this bill," said Sherry East, president of the state Education Association, adding, "There's still work to be done."   

"There were pretty good pieces of our agenda amended into this bill," agreed Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, calling it the most significant piece of education legislation in 22 years. 

Her message to teachers is to "be patient," she said. "We hope to see more coming."

Another piece applauded by many requires summer reading camps — currently funded only after third grade — for children struggling to read after kindergarten, first and second grades as well, in hopes of catching them up before they face the possibility of being held back.

The bill also expands state-paid, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to the 17 districts currently not eligible, as Gov. Henry McMaster proposed in January.

"That alone makes this legislation exciting," said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who's been pushing for a statewide expansion of the program for a decade.

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Other sections touted by Sheheen give education majors up to $3,300 extra in annual lottery-backed scholarships and expand scholarships for poor students at technical colleges. 

"That’s a big deal," he said. "It will help lift people out of poverty and fill the jobs we know we need to fill."

Fanning, who presented himself as perhaps the Senate's lone champion for teachers, chastised his colleagues, again, for not raising teachers' pay or reducing classroom sizes in the bill — two of the top priorities of SC for Ed.

In return, senators accuse Fanning of misleading teachers about their salaries, saying that's a budget issue. Legislative leaders have committed to providing a second consecutive significant boost in pay. The budget proposal the House will debate next week would provide every teacher an additional $3,000, at a cost of $213 million, as McMaster proposed in December.

GOP legislators have been reluctant to put lower class sizes in state law, saying the teacher shortage must be addressed first. This school year started with about 550 classroom vacancies statewide. 

Fanning tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to remove a provision that allows the state education superintendent to fire school board members of districts taken over by the state. Other opponents of that idea include the state School Boards Association, which argues the state can't summarily fire publicly elected officials. 

The state has had the ability to take over chronically failing schools and districts since the 1998 Education Accountability Act. But the four district takeovers since — one has been taken over twice — have left the board members in place. State Superintendent Molly Spearman has advocated for the new authority, saying it doesn't make sense to return control to the same people who oversaw a district as it sunk to the bottom.  

Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree said he believes "the ability to remove school board members that are chronically failing our children" could be the most important piece of the entire bill. 

"I don't think it's so much the removal as the threat of removal that adds consequences to failure," said the Little River Republican. 

Of all the changes made in 80-plus pages, it was altering the opening day of school that threatened — again — to derail the whole thing.

The Senate decided a month ago to let districts set their own calendars. Since 2007, state law has barred classes from starting before the third Monday in August. School districts and teachers have sought the flexibility to start earlier, so the first semester can finish before winter break.

But opposition from the coast to cutting the tourist season short prompted senators to revisit giving that autonomy.

More than half of the proposals left to debate involved school start dates. They were pulled Wednesday after senators voted 24-19 on a compromise that ties opening day to the Monday closest to Aug. 15. So, depending on the year, classes can't start before either the second or third Monday in August.    

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.