Teachers on Money Matters lobby day

Teachers from across South Carolina came to the Statehouse on Tuesday, Jan. 29, to lobby legislators for more money. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — While House Speaker Jay Lucas has been widely praised for making the transformation of South Carolina's public schools his top priority, his proposal drew a lot of fire in the week since he introduced a sweeping reform bill, prompting him and others to stress that the legislation remains a work in progress.

"Please hear my voice today. This is a springboard for conversation," former Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-Winnsboro, said Wednesday at the first public hearing on the bill. "It has not become law yet, so don’t get all worked up about it quite yet." 

The hearing came a day after more than 100 teachers descended on the Statehouse to demand better pay and greater respect. Many criticized parts of the bill. Some even threatened to strike if it passes as written.  

The massive, 84-page bill, introduced Jan. 24, represents the largest legislative effort to overhaul education in 35 years. It comes in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Minimally Adequate series in November, which laid out how gaping disparities have made South Carolina’s public school system one of the nation’s worst and left students unprepared for college or the modern workforce.

Future public hearings are scheduled for Feb. 5 and Feb. 12. 

Here is a look at several issues drawing criticism and praise in the massive proposal:

Teaching teachers

The bill examines how state colleges prepare future teachers.

Larry Daniel, education dean at The Citadel and former chairman of an alliance of the state's 30 college education deans, praised incentivizing highly effective teachers to go to failing schools by letting their children attend college tuition-free.

But he opposed requiring education majors to pass a test to show they can teach students to read in order to become an elementary school teacher. He called it an unnecessary deterrent, noting a 2014 law already required teacher-preparation programs to add coursework on how to teach students to read.

"This is our first best shot in a long time to do something incredible for education in the Palmetto State," Daniel said. "Let’s get it right."  

He also opposed the creation of a report card on teacher preparation programs. Proponents say it could force some colleges to improve their programs, while letting prospective teachers know which can best prepare them. 

"We hear from a lot of our young teachers who do not feel they’re prepared to take on what they’re facing in the classroom today," said House Education Chairman Rita Allison, R-Lyman.   

Education 'tsar'

The bill creates a "Zero to Twenty Committee" that's supposed to make sure the state's various education agencies for preschool through college are working in concert to prepare students for the work world — and tell lawmakers when they are not. 

Opponents contend the committee is an unnecessary growth of government that circumvents voters' wishes. 

The proposed 10-member committee, appointed by lawmakers, would be headed by an education "tsar" reporting to the governor. The proposal follows voters' overwhelming rejection in November of making the state education superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position.  

"This is just a roundabout way to do that," said Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "Voters said 'no.'"

The proposal's backers argue the K-12 schools chief elected every four years oversees a single agency, and the committee is a way to break up the squabbles and communication failures between agencies that can stymie progress.

Maness countered that an existing agency could do that. The state's many education entities include First Steps to School Readiness, the state Education Department, Education Oversight Committee, the Technical College System and Commission on Higher Education. 

Ending some student testing

Teachers want an end to incessant student testing that takes away from actual learning. 

Lucas proposes eliminating four state-standardized tests — one science and two social studies end-of-year tests in elementary school and a U.S. history end-of-course test in high school. Those tests are not required by federal law, allowing the state to scrap them.

Due to a drafting error, the bill as introduced strikes only the fifth- and seventh-grade social studies tests. An already-prepared amendment would strike the four Lucas intended. 

While many teachers praise the move as at least a start, social studies teachers fear eliminating the subject's testing will result in history and civics lessons disappearing from the classroom. They argue teachers will inevitably spend more time on what is in those all-important tests that determine school ratings. 

"It's the unintended consequence of high-stakes testing," said Charles Vaughan, a history and geography teacher at A.C. Flora High in Columbia. "We pragmatically know if it is not on state accountability tests, it does not get taught. It’s happened before." 

And it's social studies that prepares students to be good citizens, he said: "It is not acceptable for social studies not to be taught."

If the tests are scrapped, he urged legislators to mandate classroom time on social studies and incorporate the subject into questions on end-of-year reading and writing tests.

Much of the constant computerized testing that teachers and parents complain about are required by their school districts, not the state. Some principals tack on more, too, as a way to prepare students for the state's end-of-year bubble tests that essentially label schools good or bad. 

Vaughan asked legislators to put a moratorium on those local benchmark tests, saying students don't take them seriously anyway.

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More tests?

Teachers are incensed that Lucas' bill seems to tack on more tests than it takes away. 

The proposal requires schools to annually give parents their child's reading and math levels — sending home two scores and what they mean.

A Lexile score tells students' reading ability. Parents can pick books for their child using that score. A Quantile score measures their math capabilities and can be tied to career interests.   

In third through eighth grades, the scores will come from state-standardized tests. New assessments could be needed in kindergarten through second grade and in the high school grades to produce the scores. The bill lets districts decide what tests to use, which could include tests students are already taking. 

Beginning in 2021, the scores will determine whether students qualify for technical college, which will no longer offer remedial math and English classes. The bill directs the state Technical College System to set the minimum scores for entrance and requires all remediation to occur in 12th grade.     

More courses to graduate

A section praised by school administrators lets districts require additional credits — beyond the state-mandated 24 — to get a high school diploma.

Anderson District 5 Superintendent Thomas Wilson said this allows districts to turn the 12th grade from a "wasted year" for many students into one that provides greater opportunities to explore their career interests. 

The current, 24-load requirement includes four courses each in math and English, three in science, two in social studies and one foreign language.

But many students earn what's needed in the core subjects by the end of their junior year. That's because students can take eight units a year at many high schools, sometimes 10. Plus, algebra can be taken in eighth grade for high school credit.

So, in their senior year, students often pack their schedule with easy electives. Some just go home early.

As another way to prevent a lost senior year, Lucas' bill also requires students to take math and English in the 12th grade to qualify for lottery-backed college scholarships.  

"Our students are capable of much more than the current low expectations set by the state," Wilson said. "Raising the bar for graduation is a great step in the right direction. ... I know that our students can rise up if greater rigor is coupled with greater relevancy." 

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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