Legislative workshop 2019

Legislators talk to reporters Thursday, Jan. 3, at an annual session preview hosted by the South Carolina Press Association and The Associated Press. The event featured three panel discussions. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — Big changes are coming for South Carolina's schools — or at least, that's what will dominate debate in the legislative session that starts Tuesday, House and Senate leaders say.

In the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series, legislators in both parties and both chambers insist education reform is their top priority for 2019. But in a session preview with reporters Thursday, their prognosis on getting it done this year was mixed. 

"You'll see major reform," said House Education Chairman Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg. 

"No, I don’t think there’s going to be any more studying," she said, twice, in response to whether it would be yet another year of legislators studying the issue but getting nowhere.

But House Majority Leader Gary Simrill cautioned, again, that the process will take time. Officially, Tuesday kicks off a two-year session, meaning legislators have until they go home in the election year of 2020 to turn a bill into law before it dies, which would require legislation to be re-introduced.  

"I want to be clear that tackling K-12 education needs to be done correctly, not quickly," Simrill said. 

The Rock Hill Republican likened the upcoming debate to a four-year effort he led to fund roadwork, which culminated in 2017 with a law that raised gas taxes for the first time in 30 years.

Republicans' other big priorities for the year that could compete with a K-12 overhaul include tax reforms pushed by the state Chamber of Commerce. 

Republicans and Democrats said they were elated that House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, put education at the top of the chamber's agenda. 

“This body must take immediate action to increase the number of citizens who are ready to fill the jobs that today’s and tomorrow’s economy demands," he said during the House's organizational session last month. 

His comments from the podium drew a standing ovation, and he is working on legislation to overhaul the convoluted way schools are funded.

But the Legislature's definition of "immediate" differs from the dictionary's. Even if the House manages to advance legislation in the coming months to the Senate, it could get bogged down in that chamber, which prides itself in being the "deliberative body."  

It was clear from Thursday's panel discussions there's still no consensus on what to do, more than four years after the state Supreme Court ordered legislators to fix a system that fails to provide poor, rural children even a "minimally adequate" education. 

Several legislators from both parties praised the newspaper's' five-day Minimally Adequate series for putting the issue at the forefront.

"The Post and Courier recently did a wonderful job in bringing the holistic problems of education. ... That is the secret in taking the leap this year in education in the state," said Allison, who led a year-long study in 2015 that produced a lengthy list of shelved recommendations.

"Money always counts, but reforming education in this state is not all about money," she added. "It did my heart good today to hear my colleagues from the Senate and the House talk about how important this issue is in the state and that it should take top priority this year."

Common themes are taking shape, chief among them — paying teachers more, simplifying the confusing maze of funding formulas that date to 1977, and providing poor districts money to upgrade their facilities.

A proposal to borrow money for schools and dispense it to rural districts through a grant program has twice passed the House and died in the Senate. GOP leaders pledge to put their weight behind a renewed push this year. 

Poor districts simply don't have the tax base to pay for construction or repairs on their own, said House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who ascended to the powerful role last month.  

Sen. Brad Hutto agreed, saying he wished all students could go to high schools like Dorman in Spartanburg District 6 or River Bluff in Lexington 1. 

"They’re like miniature colleges. It’s great. You know what it says to the students who go there? 'Hey, they value education,'" said the Orangeburg Democrat.

"But when that rural student goes into that school room that’s 50 years old, and the window’s broken, and the heater doesn’t work. And you tell them you value education, but there’s no teacher in their classroom, they don’t believe you. They don’t. We’ve got to show them we really do value education."

Some Republicans insist the $4.5 billion the state spends on K-12 education — an average of $6,200 per student this school year — is plenty. They say it's just not spent correctly. They want to give districts more flexibility in spending what they're given, after requiring them to prove they're managing their money well. 

Democrats counter that flexibility is a buzzword that won't help districts with high concentrations of poor students. 

Every district has poor students, but it's an altogether different problem when nearly all students live in poverty, said Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, a retired educator. 

"The elephant in the room for education is poverty. The cost to educate a kid in poverty is different," he said. "Money is not all, but I guarantee you money is a big player."

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But even Republicans who think enough is spent agree teachers deserve more.

Beyond better pay, stemming the state's teacher shortage also involves freeing them from the bureaucratic paperwork, unpaid additional duties and incessant testing that takes away from class time, legislators said.   

"Everybody wants more money, but teachers want to teach," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, whose daughter teaches at Gilbert High School. "If they could go to school every day and do the thing they love, that’s what teachers want more than anything else in the world."

While state law bars unions for public employees, frustrated teachers began mobilizing through social media last summer. Some say they're close to a strike unless legislators turn promises into results. 

Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, encouraged teachers to keep pushing. 

"The teachers are serious about galvanizing and having a voice. They’re mounting up and I applaud them," she said. "Come get us."  

Sen. Greg Hembree, who's expected to become Senate Education chairman next week, advocates a 10 percent pay hike over three years for not only teachers but all state employees who make less than $100,000. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, wants to hike teachers' salaries to the national average over several years, which he says can be funded at least partly by identifying and cutting programs that aren't working. Price tags for their proposals aren't yet available. 

Raising teachers' pay 5 percent next school year, as advocated by state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, would cost $155 million and align salaries to the Southeastern average. 

Legislators must focus on doing what it takes to put a qualified, effective teacher in every classroom, said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. 

"You start looking at 27 different issues and try to tackle all those at one time, good luck," he said. 

"We can fiddle around with systems. If you don’t get the right people in the job, it really isn’t going to matter," he said. "If you get the right people in the job, even if we give them a below-average system to work within, they’re going to figure it out, and they’ll be effective teaching children because that’s what they’re good at." 

Simrill said true reform on both education and taxes will require an end to finger-pointing. 

"I don’t want to assign blame. I want to accept responsibility. If everyone who comes to the table can accept responsibility and not assign blame, I promise we can come up with a solution."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.