COLUMBIA — State senators looking to rewrite the outdated, byzantine way South Carolina funds K-12 schools can agree on one thing — an overhaul isn't going to happen next year.
"I don't expect anything to be passed out this (legislative session)," Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, said Tuesday. "It's too big of a decision affecting too many people."
"It's not going anywhere fast," echoed Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, adding that once legislators figure this out, they should be sent to Washington to create peace in the Middle East — a joke that underlines how difficult this battle could be.
The inaugural meeting of a Senate panel studying education funding began with a presentation from the state's Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. Its proposal, which redistributes the more than $4 billion the state currently spends on K-12 schools, would result in 55 school districts collectively gaining $174 million and 26 districts losing $174 million.
Such shifts help explain why all previous efforts to overhaul the system have flopped, since no legislator wants to be on the losing end of a new formula.
The effort was renewed after The Post and Courier laid out in its five-part Minimally Adequate series last November how the state fails to prepare graduates for either college or the work world.
Debate will resume in January on a massive bill the House approved last March that includes changes to teacher preparation, student testing and accountability. But chances for a major overhaul to the funding system next year, when every legislator is up for re-election, went from slim to none Tuesday.
In January, Gov. Henry McMaster, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler jointly asked the state's fiscal experts for help replacing a funding system still based on a 42-year-old law, which set the minimum funding needed to cover basic education costs, as defined in the days before home computers existed.
After senators were briefed Tuesday on the various funding laws stacked on top for the past four decades, Turner, the panel's chairman, said lawmakers will be in study mode for awhile.
"It's more important to get it right than get it out" this session, he said. "In the end, it should get more money to the classroom."
The proposal released by the Fiscal Affairs Office earlier this month seeks to define what services students need and tie funding directly to the number of adults needed to provide them, including teachers, librarians, bus drivers and custodians. For example, it funds a classroom teacher for every 16.5 poor students. For students not in poverty, the funding ratio is set at 21.5-to-1.
Common rallying cries for the thousands of teachers who marched around the Statehouse in May were higher pay and lower class sizes.
Legislators can certainly adjust the model to lower class sizes, but that will require more funding, said state Fiscal Affairs Director Frank Rainwater. A single student less in the average classroom would require an additional 2,683 teachers statewide at a cost of $172 million a year, he told legislators.
The model also seeks to more equitably distribute the state's wealth. Currently, the state sends $1.2 billion to districts as reimbursements for property tax relief laws. While that's an average of $1,700 per student statewide, districts receive a range of $800 to $5,000 per student, depending on property values.
Education advocates have long argued that's not fair.
Districts losing money under the redistribution tend to have lots of high-dollar commercial property and average student-teacher ratios that are already lower than the model. But some rural districts also lose out because they would no longer receive a guaranteed minimum in tax relief.
Three districts account for 63 percent of the total lost under the proposed new formula. Charleston County would receive $50 million less from the state, Beaufort County $33.3 million less and Richland 1 $26.2 million less.
On the flip side, Greenville County — the state's largest school district — would get an additional $18 million, followed by Berkeley County with $11.5 million, Sumter County at $11.47 million, Dorchester 2 at $10 million and Lancaster County, $9.1 million.
Legislators call the proposal a starting point. It almost certainly will not pass as presented.
Democratic senators said they want to see how the numbers shift if the state put an additional $600 million into K-12 education, as called for in the 1977 formula that's supposed to be adjusted annually for inflation.
"Another year without education funding reform is very disappointing," said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the state School Boards Association, which for years advocated a uniform, statewide property tax. "However, you also don’t want funding reform that doesn’t make clear, substantial changes and doesn’t take a comprehensive look at everything. The funding system has been broken primarily because of tax changes over the years."
But, she added, "we do very much appreciate the leadership of the state, from the governor to Senate president and speaker, collectively acknowledging the system is broken and calling for funding reform. That in and of itself is a big step."