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House Speaker Jay Lucas proposes massive overhaul of SC's public education system

Jay Lucas after re-election as speaker

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, shakes hands with Rep. Robert Williams, D-Darlington, after he was re-elected speaker at the House's organizational session last month. Photo provided by Sam Holland/SC House 

COLUMBIA — House Speaker Jay Lucas' proposal for transforming South Carolina's public education system involves increasing teachers' salaries, dissolving failing school districts, improving job-training opportunities and encouraging innovations. 

The linchpin of his massive, 84-page bill, being filed Thursday morning, is a Student Bill of Rights that says all students deserve highly qualified teachers, excellent principal leadership and a system that "puts their success first." 

The bill comes in the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series in November, which laid out how gaping disparities have left thousands of South Carolina students unprepared for college or the modern workforce after high school, threatening the state's newfound prosperity.  

Lucas' proposal for fixing education requires new approaches in not only K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities' teacher-training programs. 

Universities may need to step up their teacher preparations. To become a certified teacher, college education majors would have to pass a test showing they know how to teach students to read. Certification success rates would be publicly posted by university, along with other data on their graduates, such as how many years they continue teaching.  

The plan calls for a new education "czar," who would answer to the governor and coordinate improvement efforts from preschool through college.

"We've got to start thinking zero to 20. It's critical to start thinking more broadly," Lucas told The Post and Courier. 

Part of the bill is aimed at truly ensuring students can read on grade level by third grade, something the 2014 Read to Succeed law was supposed to do. But reading scores have only worsened, partly because the law's definitions and exemptions allow most students who can't read to advance anyway. The bill seeks to stop that, as well as better help struggling readers before third grade.  

Students' latest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the only test taken nationally, allowing for state-by-state comparisons — show students' scores have backslid over the last decade.

Mississippi, which has the nation's highest poverty rate, now outperforms South Carolina students across every grade and subject, despite spending less per pupil, the Minimally Adequate series noted.

Lucas, who has led the charge on demanding better, said that's just plain embarrassing. 

"Mississippi is beating us at every turn. ... We're better than that as a state," the Hartsville Republican said. "That should be an embarrassment to us all. We're going to do a better job. I promise you that."

A coordinated push

Lucas is working with Senate leaders and Gov. Henry McMaster on reforming an education system that ranks among the nation's worst. 

The bill represents the policy piece. Other portions of the reform package that are still to come include legislation providing poor districts hundreds of millions of dollars for school construction through borrowing and McMaster's budget recommendation to give $100 million to the Commerce Department to attract jobs to rural areas. 

The effort marks the most ambitious attempt at wholesale reforms to South Carolina's education system since the 1980s, when then-Gov. Richard Riley used his office as a bully pulpit to push for change. Several lawmakers have said The Post and Courier's five-part series on the state's education ills helped spur the momentum necessary to bring a comprehensive reform effort to the forefront this year. 

Parts of Lucas' proposal will be widely welcomed, particularly by frustrated teachers who are organizing to demand better pay. He hopes to increase teachers' salaries by roughly 10 percent over the next two years, which would take $270 million. McMaster has proposed a 5 percent across-the-board raise in the coming school year.

A section that would eliminate a few end-of-year state tests in science and social studies will also draw praise from many teachers who complain about the time spent testing instead of teaching. 

Other parts, such as dissolving districts as an option for repeatedly failing scores, are sure to draw opposition. Tiny districts of fewer than 1,000 students would have to consolidate. The bill would also put new ethics rules on school board members to ensure, for example, they don't use their position to hire relatives or funnel contracts to friends. 

Consolidation has long been a thorny topic in the Legislature. But that's where the Student Bill of Rights comes in, as lawmakers need to do what's best for students, not the adults in the system, Lucas said. 

He has a message for potential opponents: "If you're satisfied with the status quo, then I would urge them to oppose the bill, but if you think South Carolina can do bigger and better things in public education and workforce development, then let's try to be big and bold and hit a home run with this legislation." 

He backs his argument with numbers he's spent the last few months dissecting with the state's economists and education agencies. 

Threat to prosperity

One slide in his presentation has a single number: 64,249. That's the number of jobs available in South Carolina, as of last November, because there aren't enough qualified people to fill them.

The Post and Courier series revealed that one in three students in South Carolina graduates high school unprepared for most jobs. That number is even worse in rural and poor districts, where some schools fail to graduate even a dozen career-ready alumni.

This comes at a time when the state’s economy is booming, boasting a wealth of new jobs and massive investments from multinational companies such as Boeing, Volvo and BMW. But these jobs require solid reading and math skills — areas in which the state’s students have consistently come up short, the newspaper reported.

Only 43 percent of third- through eighth-graders statewide tested on grade level for math or reading standards — not both. That average would be far worse if not for two well-off districts in York County, another slide from Lucas' presentation shows. 

Students are graduating unable to perform simple math, at a time when entry-level manufacturing jobs require algebra, geometry and computer science skills, Lucas said.

He crafted his bill by borrowing from what Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and other states have done to leap over South Carolina.

Those states set a higher bar to improve by embarking on ambitious, comprehensive plans to remake their school systems, the Minimally Adequate series reported. Tennessee, for instance, raised its academic standards and shoveled money and attention into fixing its lowest-performing school districts. Mississippi also enacted tougher standards while expanding preschool and teacher mentoring programs, the newspaper found.

"Our goal should be to outpace every Southeastern state in gains made," Lucas said.   

One essential piece of the puzzle, overhauling the state's byzantine funding system, likely won't be tackled until next year.

The system is still built on a 1977 state law that was supposed to cover education basics in a way that sent more aid to poor, rural districts. But those equity intentions have been diluted by a complicated stew of funding formulas added over the years. 

Lucas, McMaster and Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, jointly asked the state's nonpartisan economic advisers last week to recommend a new funding system by the end of this session.

That's the best path forward for such an enormous job. A new funding system didn't need to come from any single politician or committee, as that would've generated distrust, Lucas said. 

All previous attempts over the years to overhaul the formulas have collapsed because they created winners and losers among the districts.   

"If we want a 21st century education, we need a 21st century formula," Lucas said. Asking the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office for help, he said, represented a "tremendous first step forward" in fixing that broken system. 

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.

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