COLUMBIA — Legislation that backers call the best chance in generations at transforming public education in South Carolina advanced Wednesday to the House floor with minor changes, hours after a state Senate panel prepared to strike huge chunks of it.
Despite the continuing debate, lawmakers remain hopeful they will send a bill to the governor before the session ends in May that will turn around struggling schools, improve teachers' working conditions and better prepare students for the workforce.
A 15-1 vote by the House Education Committee sets the stage for floor debate next week in the House.
"This is an opportunity to really move education forward," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Lyman. "This is the first time in many years where the winds seem to all be blowing in the same direction. We need to make sure we have a quality education in this state for all children."
The bill proposed by House Speaker Jay Lucas last month requires changes not only for K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities' teacher-training programs. Calls for improving education intensified in the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series last November.
One provision of the bill causing consternation would require school districts of fewer than 1,000 students to merge with a neighboring district in their county by August 2023. An amendment approved Wednesday would give the seven affected districts a lifeline if their test scores show they can be tiny and successful.
"Our overall goal is to ensure our children are educated," said Rep. Tim McGinnis, R-Myrtle Beach. "If a district is already accomplishing that, it could be a punitive measure to force them to consolidate."
His amendment exempts districts if at least half of their students attend schools rated average or above on state report cards. It was a suggestion from advocates of the Greenwood 51 school district in Ware Shoals, who testified a merger would destroy their community.
The bill would close other school districts if most of their students attend schools with the worst ratings for four consecutive years. The House panel rejected an attempt to give those districts a fifth year to improve.
Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill, said a district should dissolve if it can't turn things around after four years of state assistance as required under the bill.
"Four years is a long time. That's kindergarten through third grade," said Felder, chairwoman of the House Education Committee's K-12 panel.
The worst schools tend to get stuck at the bottom, Felder said, and that shouldn't be acceptable.
Of the 39 schools with the bottom rating in 2014, 10 no longer exist and 21 still posted the worst ratings in 2018, she said. Last year was the first time since 2014 that schools received ratings.
"That's the part that keeps me awake at night: How do we expect these children to do better if we don’t change the status quo?" Felder asked.
Also defeated was an effort to reduce class sizes by requiring a teacher's aide in all classrooms through third grade and in all other classes with more than 20 students. Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, pointed to the model used by Meeting Street Schools in Charleston that are public schools run in partnership with a private foundation, where every classroom has two certified teachers.
Legislators must address class sizes that teachers complain are ballooning amid the state's teacher shortage crisis, he said.
Currently, there are no state caps on classroom sizes.
"This is critically important," Brown said. "It's going to make that much of a difference. This is the key right here. This is the key to getting it done."
The amendment failed with Republicans saying they agree but it's too costly, and it could turn into an unfunded mandate for districts.
Meanwhile, a Senate panel reviewing the bill section-by-section is set to strike a Student Bill of Rights and an advisory committee that teachers oppose.
The subcommittee took no vote Wednesday but will resume its work next week.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree called the nine-point Student Bill of Rights "feel-good language" that, while meant to be a mission statement, could invite a lawsuit.
That section in Lucas' 84-page proposal is designed to set the policy that students’ needs should drive all adult decisions regarding public education. It says all students deserve highly qualified teachers, excellent leadership at all levels and a system that "puts their success first."
But Hembree said Wednesday it's impossible to stop with students, as teachers, bus drivers, board members and everyone else in the system would want their own list.
Indeed, a House panel inserted a teacher "bill of rights" in the legislation last week at teachers' request.
"There's really no end to it," said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. "When you say someone has a 'bill of rights,' it implies there is an actionable right, that it’s not just a goal or aspiration. It may grow into something some crafty plaintiffs lawyer can turn into a lawsuit."
The Senate panel also proposes removing the section creating the Zero to Twenty Committee that teachers' groups adamantly oppose.
The committee created in the bill is supposed to make sure the state's various education regulatory agencies for preschool through college work in concert to prepare students for the work world.
Teachers fear it will end up being another government body telling them what to do. They already get directives by the state Department of Education, the regulatory State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee, which oversees testing.
Efforts in Wednesday's House meeting to remove or change the committee failed.
"They have no oversight and they have no authority in any way except to bring back recommendations," Allison said. "This committee would break down those silos ... meshing education and workforce together. It brings all of those people together."
The proposed Senate amendment would still require an annual report but assign the task to an existing committee of legislators, educators and business leaders created several years ago to oversee efforts to tie high school offerings to the modern work world.