Lowcountry business leaders shouldn't talk trash about South Carolina's public education system, which isn't as bad as many think, the head of the state's Chamber of Commerce said.

"We're not 49th (in the nation) and 'Thank God for Mississippi.' We're now 37th in high school graduation rate," S.C. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Otis Rawl said.

Rawl spoke Tuesday to about 60 business people at Trident Technical College attending the annual grass-roots meeting of local chambers of commerce, an event designed to gather ideas for what the state can do to improve its business climate.

Rawl said belittling the state's progress is not only inaccurate, but it's bad for business.

"That's a big deal when you start selling to people outside South Carolina," he said. "We need more kids to come in here who are well educated and who want to grow the economy."

Robert Barnett, the chamber's vice president, said South Carolina's education reform is considered a national model, and its technical college system also might be the nation's best.

"That doesn't mean we don't have problems. We do have problems and we need to work on them," he said.

"The ship is turning. We need to make sure the ship keeps turning."

Barnett said the state's education institutions are solid, but too many students arrive unprepared to learn. For instance, 58 percent of the state's fourth-graders don't read at a fourth-grade level. If they don't learn to read soon enough, they can struggle all their life, he said, adding that business leaders can help by volunteering one hour a week as mentors in elementary schools.

South Carolina built a reputation as one of the nation's worst public education systems because for years it ranked near the bottom in SAT scores. Experts have noted that's not a fair comparison because a relatively higher percentage of South Carolina students have taken the SAT test.

Barnett said even graduation rate comparisons are flawed because states have calculated them differently. However, of 16 states currently using the same method, South Carolina ranks ninth. By late 2011, all states are expected to use the same method.

The 60 business leaders heard of the chambers' legislative successes earlier this year, including its work to reform the Employment Security Commission, approving a cigarette tax increase, and passing a constitutional amendment that would require secret ballots for workers voting on whether to join a union.

When asked what legislative goals the chamber should focus on next year, the group was mostly quiet but members eventually mentioned protecting filming incentives, expanding nursing training opportunities, resolving the port-rail impasse in North Charleston and ensuring the new governor's staff includes business-minded people.

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