Shrinking the state Department of Education, simplifying educational funding formulas, rewarding great teachers and expanding the number of charter schools are some of Republican gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley's top ideas for improving education in the state.

"I have referred to South Carolina education as an opportunity waiting to happen," she said. "For far too long we have talked about everything that's wrong with education. Now we need to talk about what can be right."

Haley outlined her education policy during a Thursday afternoon stop at Meeting Street Academy, a small, innovative private school that serves underprivileged children.

The school is supported financially by the Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group, and it charges its students only $1 a year. The group also ranks as one of Haley's biggest campaign donors.

Haley praised the school's creativity and how it can be flexible because it isn't bound by state bureaucracy. "We just talked to one of the teachers who said he left Georgia because of all the red tape," she said. "He wanted to do certain kinds of field trips, but they said, 'It's not on the list.'"

But Haley's comments mostly revolved around her ideas for public, not private, education.

Her platform doesn't mention any support for public vouchers to help families afford private schools -- though she has supported such a change as a state lawmaker.

Trav Robertson, campaign manager for state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley's Democratic opponent, accused Haley of hiding from her signature education issue. "Can you hear that beep, beep, beep? It's the Haley campaign bus in reverse."

Haley said she would sign a school choice bill if it came to her desk, "but my primary focus is where do we start first? ... What I plan to propose is to simplify the way we fund education. I think too much emphasis has been on revenue. Not enough has been on distribution of dollars to the classroom."

Haley said the state must direct education dollars toward poorer communities that have the greatest education needs.

But state Democrats noted Haley provided a key vote to table an amendment that called for considering poverty when calculating education funding -- a motion that failed by a single vote during this year's budget debate. "Which Nikki Haley is running for governor?" Robertson asked. "It's a glaring example of her hypocrisy."

Haley said she would do far more than Sheheen to reduce the size and bureaucracy of the state Department of Education. She noted only five other states have more separate funding pots for schools.

And Haley said she would like to see even more charter schools than the 37 currently operating in the state. She began Thursday's campaign swing at a Greenville charter school with a single-gender focus.

"If you look at our charter schools in South Carolina, they don't use as much funding as our regular public schools, which is actually pretty impressive," she said. "Their standards and results have been much higher. They're starting to see more success because we're allowing them to be creative."

She also expressed support for privatizing the state's school bus system and said school construction costs could be reduced by having uniform architectural plans.

"We don't need to have every elementary school look completely different," she said. "We need to look at architectural plans where all elementary schools have the same plan. All middle schools. All high schools."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com.