COLUMBIA — Legislators must approve "bold" ways to intervene in South Carolina's K-12 chronically failing schools when local officials can't get the job done, the state Senate Education chairman said Monday in launching a second round of his panel's education reform efforts.
The first round sent parts of a massive education bill attempting to overhaul public education to the Senate floor, where it awaits debate when legislators return in January.
The year began with legislators in both chambers pledging to improve schools, following The Post and Courier's five-part Minimally Adequate series last November that laid out how South Carolina's schools are graduating thousands of students yearly unprepared for college or the work world.
Senators who spent months reviewing the bill section by section advanced pieces of it before the regular session ended in May. That included eliminating three end-of-year state-standardized tests to help ease concerns over incessant testing — which legislators tacked on to this year's state budget, suspending them for at least one year — and bolstering state law intending to get more students reading on grade level before fourth grade.
But what they have yet to touch included some of the most contentious sections providing the state's K-12 education agency additional takeover options and the ability to force districts to consolidate when schools continue to fail despite years of extra help.
Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree made clear Monday his resolve has not wavered, even as he acknowledged the thorny issues are "not going to be politically popular in a lot of districts." All 170 legislative seats are up for election in 2020.
The Legislature can no longer give up its responsibility to locally elected school boards, Hembree said. The North Myrtle Beach Republican has frequently said that while legislators get blamed for failing schools, they don't hire a single school employee or make local spending decisions.
"We either have a responsibility as state lawmakers to provide public education of a high quality to our youngest citizens, or it's not our responsibility and it belongs to the locals. The reality is, we're constitutionally mandated to provide that education," Hembree said to start the meeting Monday.
If a locally elected school board can't turn around performance after years of assistance, "that responsibility falls back on us, and we can't just shirk it off and say, 'We're going to send you a little more money and hope this goes away," he said. "Many of these districts have been failing for generation on generation. We’re going to have to be bold and look at systems that are failing and do something about those systems."
The state's K-12 education agency has been able to take over schools and entire districts for two decades, though the Legislature has strengthened that ability over the last few years, to include new authority to review districts' finances. State Superintendent Molly Spearman has taken over three school districts since 2017 and declared a fiscal emergency in a fourth, publicly putting it on warning.
The Senate panel reviewing the sections took testimony Monday but did not vote. Amendments will be considered at the next meeting.
About two dozen teachers and their representatives thanked senators for slowing deliberations on the bill. Many questioned the way the state determines whether schools are failing, opposing the high-takes tests that are the basis of the state accountability system.
Many also opposed additional takeover options, with testimony focusing on not allowing private charter organizations to take over management of public schools.
Hembree called fears about that option a distraction, saying "the likelihood of it happening is pretty remote." Removing it with an amendment is a possibility, he said.
The goal is to prevent schools from reaching a crisis level and provide different ways to turn a school around when necessary, he said.
Spearman, first elected in 2014, testified Monday that she's found that districts in crisis lack local leadership.
Local school board members should be fired and their authority taken away completely if the situation has become so dire a takeover is needed, she said. She also wants assurances she won't be handing power back to the same people when the state takeover ends in Allendale and Williamsburg counties and tiny Florence district 4 in Timmonsville. The districts collectively educate about 5,300 students.
"Please give me something for a better transition. We don’t want to do all this work and walk away and hope it holds," she said. "I need your help, so they're not immediately going back to the old ways and just handing out contracts and not going through procurement. If you don’t have good leadership, the system will not work."
She added her agency tries not to let a district get so dire that a takeover is needed since it's a tremendous amount of work for state employees who must, for example, oversee local finances.
This year, the state's Office of School Transformation, created in 2016, is spending $24 million on intervention help, which includes training for principals and teachers, in nearly half of schools statewide.
Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the state School Boards Association, countered that the state should respect voters' decisions on who they choose to lead their local schools. She suggested that the state instead diagnose the type of training individual school board members need and provide it, much like the transformation office does for schools.
"Whether we like who is elected or not, they’re elected by the people of their community. We should recognize that as sacred," she said.