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Darla Moore says SC's 'horrific' education results demand sweeping reforms

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Minimally Adequate panel discussion in Florence

The panel for The Post and Courier's education discussion Monday, Jan. 28, in Florence include Colleton County Superintendent Franklin Foster, Florence District 3 (Lake City) Superintendent Laura Hickson, Francis Marion University President Fred Carter and businesswoman Darla Moore, a philanthropist and Lake City native who founded education nonprofits. Seanna Adcox/Staff

FLORENCE — Teachers should walk out en masse and the state's biggest employers should threaten to leave if legislators don't pass sweeping changes this year to begin transforming South Carolina's education system, said leading businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore. 

South Carolina's "horrific" education results require a comprehensive makeover, she said Monday at The Post and Courier's panel discussion on education titled, "Minimally Adequate: Fix South Carolina Schools." It was the last of a four-event series held across the state.  

"If I were a Boeing or BMW — 1) I would not come to South Carolina because of the education system. Today, given their economic power in this state, those and others, I would go to the leadership of this state and say, 'You need to do something about this or I'm going to leave,'" said Moore. The Lake City native's latest projects include a $23 million career center she's funding for local high-schoolers.

Legislative leaders have made overhauling South Carolina’s education system their top priority in the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series. Last November's five-part series laid out how gaping disparities have made South Carolina’s public school system one of the nation’s worst and left thousands of students unprepared for college or work after high school. 

Francis Marion University President Fred Carter applauded the promises made by Gov. Henry McMaster and House Speaker Jay Lucas in the months since the report, saying they've shown courage he hasn't seen in decades.  

Carter called Lucas' bill introduced last week a "fantastic beginning." The massive, 84-page bill requires new approaches in not only K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities' teacher-training programs. 

"I think we're entering into a watershed period in South Carolina," said Carter, another panelist. "We've neglected (education) so long, it's come home to haunt us."

He's optimistic that "we're going to be pleased" with changes eventually passed into law this session. 

But if that doesn't happen, Moore chimed in, "sometimes you've got to do things differently." 

If every teacher and administrator in South Carolina walked out, or an international company like Boeing left "because we can't educate ourselves," that would create the fiscal crisis needed to get legislators' attention, said Moore, who led the private investment company Rainwater Inc.

She encouraged residents statewide to protest. 

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"We tend to be timid people because we're gracious, polite people," said Moore, noting she helped organize protests in her hometown that were successful in getting rid of a former superintendent. 

"I'm very conservative, but sometimes you have to take things into your own hands when you have an existential crisis," said the first woman featured on the cover of Fortune magazine. "This is an existential crisis."

The sweeping reforms she advocates include tossing out the way teachers are paid — something Lucas' bill would eventually do — which is sure to draw opposition from teacher advocacy groups as it moves through the legislative process. The first hearing on his bill is set for Wednesday. 

Currently, teachers are paid according to their degree and years of experience in the classroom. Teachers with a master's degree, for example, get paid $4,600 to $6,300 more annually than bachelor's degree teachers who have taught the same number of years, according to the state salary schedule for teachers.

Lucas proposes raising the state minimum for first-year teachers to $35,000 next school year and phasing in a 10 percent pay raise for all other teachers over the next few years — which teachers are applauding. His plan would then switch to a system that promotes teachers according to their performance and duties, which some are calling a nonstarter.

Moore said such a switch is an essential part of freeing districts from state mandates that dictate how money must be spent. 

"Give superintendents and principals the flexibility to run their own shows," she said, applauding the flexibility component in Lucas' bill.

"You don’t do across-the-board raises. Somebody’s got to say, 'You’re a good teacher. I’m going to give you a really good raise,' or 'You’re a terrible teacher. Therefore, you’re gone." 

Teachers with the advocacy group SC for Ed, which has grown to more than 20,000 members since its founding last summer, will be at the Statehouse on Tuesday to push for reforms, including higher pay, less student testing and letting districts pick when school starts. Currently, state law bars classes from starting before the third Monday in August. 

Carter urged teachers to make their voices heard without striking. 

"Our students need every precious minute of class time they get in the state of South Carolina," he said.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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