COLUMBIA — In a rare show of pro-public-education unity, three of South Carolina's top Republican lawmakers are jointly seeking help from the state's economic experts to fix a school funding system that fails to give many students a chance at success. 

A letter signed Thursday by Gov. Henry McMaster, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler asks the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office to make recommendations on a funding system that will "ensure that all of our children have the necessary resources to meet the requirements of the 21st century economy."

The recommendations are due May 9 — the last day of this year's regular session — suggesting an overhaul won't be completed until at least next year. 

In the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series, lawmakers have pledged to make education reform their top priority during the two-year session. The letter signifies that for the first time in decades, the governor's office and leaders of both legislative chambers are working in concert to get it done. 

The three Republicans said they recognize a brighter future for South Carolina's children will require overhauling the byzantine funding system that's still based on a 42-year-old law.

"We must improve scholastic outcomes in South Carolina, but true reform requires more than simply sending money from Columbia," the trio wrote

As laid out in the newspaper's five-day series, the state's K-12 funding system is so complicated, legislators themselves don't understand it. 

It’s a messy stew of money streams that starts with a 1977 law that sets the minimum funding needed to cover basic education costs, as defined in the days before home computers existed. 

Added to this pot are proceeds from a 1-cent sales tax increase approved in 1984, reimbursements to districts for cutting homeowners' property taxes and a tiny slice of state lottery profits.

It all adds up to about $4.5 billion that is dispensed to 81 school districts across the state through dozens of budget lines that dictate how the money must be spent. On average, the state spends more than $6,000 per student, according to state economists.

The S.C. Supreme Court, while ruling in 2014 that the state fails to provide poor, rural children even the opportunity for success, called the funding formulas an outdated, complicated scheme.

Even before that court order to fix the system, legislators recognized an overhaul was needed. But they couldn't agree on what to do, and various study panels produced reports that went nowhere. 

Potential changes produced winners and losers among the districts, inviting opposition that made any effort collapse, as no district wants to lose money.

Handing the problem over to the state's nonpartisan economic advisers — who also make the revenue estimates lawmakers use to write the state budget — may offer the best chance to move forward.  

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The 11 directives given to Revenue and Fiscal Affairs include recommending a phase-in approach that ensures school districts don't lose money. The letter asks the agency to work with state education agencies, school districts and advocates in crafting its proposal.

The revenue office recently completed a one-year study of the funding system at the request of former House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White. The report showed no direct correlation between a district's per-pupil spending and its size or poverty level.

That data provides a starting point for developing a new, simpler system, said Frank Rainwater, Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office director.

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said Wednesday more money must be coupled with reforms in how it's spent, as well as additional guidance for small, struggling districts that lack financial expertise. 

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, has repeatedly said correcting the system will be a process and leaders want to do it correctly, not quickly. But changes are still expected this year, chiefly increasing teachers' pay. That's one thing there seems to be consensus on, as well as removing burdensome paperwork and testing that takes away from teachers' ability to teach.  

McMaster included a 5 percent pay raise for teachers in his budget proposal released Tuesday. 

Other directives in Thursday's letter include examining teacher salaries and boosting the minimum for first-year teachers by $3,000 to $35,000. 

Lucas is expected to file his proposal for education reforms in the coming weeks. Legislators have until the end of the 2020 session to pass a law before the process must start all over again. 

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.