Molly Spearman at governor's newser (copy)

State Superintendent Molly Spearman said at a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Gov. Henry McMaster's office that "we've kicked the can down the road a long time" when it comes to needed changes in education. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to advance legislation called a first step in overhauling South Carolina's public education system, following a six-hour debate that resulted in no major changes but did add several teacher-friendly provisions.

The House's 113-4 vote was met with a round of applause. A routine vote on Thursday will officially send the bill over to the Senate, where a panel that's reviewing it section-by-section has already removed large chunks. The Senate is not expected to debate its version until April. 

"It is time in South Carolina for a bold, transformative reform of our system," said Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill, who leads the House Education Committee panel for K-12 schools.

The push from legislative leaders in both chambers, as well as Gov. Henry McMaster, to fix a system that's fallen to among the bottom in the nation came in the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series last November.

Rep. Jay West, R-Belton, called the legislation a once-in-a-generation opportunity. 

"I believe in what we could do. This is a starting point. This is not the end-all, be-all of this process. We are beginning, but we have to have a foundation for the future," said West, who noted his wife has taught in public schools for 27 years.

"This is a cultural shift in mindset. We’re buying in to making sure these students in areas that are impoverished have the same opportunities as those in Greenville or Charleston or Columbia. They deserve that."

House Speaker Jay Lucas' massive bill, co-signed by 100 House members, requires new approaches not only in the K-12 system, but also technical colleges and universities. Provisions are aimed at ensuring students can read on grade level by the end of third grade — bolstering a law passed five years ago — better connecting high school offerings with the modern work world, and improving colleges' teacher-training programs. 

Provisions causing some of the most backlash expand the state Department of Education's existing authority to take over long-failing schools and districts if they don't improve after several years of intervention, as outlined in the bill.

The state would have more options for turning around a school, including handing over management to a nonprofit, charter district or — if it still doesn't improve after several more years — a new district composed of other struggling schools. The state has already taken over the management of three school districts since 2017.    

Opponents contend the state report cards that judge schools put too much weight on state-standardized tests taken at the end of the school year. 

"We’re basing it on test scores. How many of us would want to be judged on one-day’s work? That’s what we’re doing," said Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins. 

The House bill would eliminate four high-stakes tests in social studies and science that aren't required by the federal government.

While teachers have called that a start in reducing the overtesting of students, they have criticized the overall bill as doing little to stem the teacher shortage crisis. Last year, more than 5,300 teachers left South Carolina's classrooms — 26 percent of them retired, while 35 percent had been teaching fewer than five years, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.   

The bill includes both a student and teacher "bill of rights," which are essentially mission statements.

One says students deserve highly qualified teachers, excellent leadership at all levels and a system that "puts their success first." The other says teachers should expect, among other things, unencumbered daily planning time, to be paid for extra duties, and to have their discipline decisions supported by administrators.

The lists have no teeth. Fearing they could invite a lawsuit, legislators passed an amendment Wednesday specifying unmet goals do not open the door for legal action.  

But legislators did insert a requirement that districts give teachers at least 30 minutes daily duty-free. Teachers, especially in the elementary grades, complain they can't eat lunch or even take a bathroom break during the school day.

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"Teachers are actually wearing diapers because they cannot go to the bathroom," said Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers, D-Spartanburg. "That’s appalling to me. It should be appalling to all of us. I urge you and ask you to show some human compassion."

The first proposal aimed at lowering class sizes where students need the most help failed 47-68. In underperforming schools, it would've required a teacher's assistant in every kindergarten- through third-grade class with more than 15 students. 

Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, argued that provision alone could improve struggling schools.

"This is our ticket — this one doggone amendment. Are we serious about transforming education in South Carolina?" he asked.

Some opponents of the idea questioned the cost and whether it would be an unfunded mandate for school districts. House Education Committee Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Lyman, said that, while she believes small class sizes are best for teachers and students, caps should be set by regulation, not law.

So legislators did approve, on a voice vote, directing the state Department of Education to use lower student-to-teacher ratios "as a strategy to assist chronically unsatisfactory schools." A turnaround division within the agency, created through a 2016 state law, has $24 million this year to assist the state's worst-performing schools.  

Legislators also added a tax incentive for teachers working in the 12 poorest and most rural counties, to help stem the teacher turnover rates there. Teachers who live and own a home in the district could get a tax credit equal to what they pay in property taxes for five years. An incentive already in the bill allows the children of teachers at the lowest-performing schools to go to college tuition-free. 

Legislators refused to get rid of the Zero to Twenty Committee — though they did rename it the Special Council on Revitalizing Education (or SCORE) — which teachers oppose as another politically appointed committee that could add to the rule-making bureaucracy for education. The bill tasks the council with getting the various agencies that regulate pre-kindergarten through college to work together toward preparing students for the work world.

"We're trying to break down the silos of education," West said. "We don’t connect the pieces together."

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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