How We've Changed

Folly Beach has undergone a transformation since experiencing Hugo’s wrath. Today, there are more large homes and more rental homes close to the water’s edge.

COLUMBIA -- A panel of state senators has begun efforts that could lead to a complete revamping next year of the way South Carolina pays for public education.

The effort to get rid of the inequities that surround the way the state pays for public education has been studied and debated and pushed aside repeatedly over the years.

So what makes this time any different?

Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican who is leading the Senate subcommittee, said lawmakers, educators and business leaders have reached consensus: something needs to change.

"I think that a lot of the pressures are building for us to act," Hayes said.

That pressure comes from the state budget crisis that stripped more than $2 billion from state coffers, combined with pressure from the business community saddled several years ago with a disproportionate share of property taxes to pay for school operations.

At the core of the matter is the existing funding formula. Designed in 1977, the formula measures the taxing ability of each county based on its appraised property, essentially directing more state money to poorer districts and forcing wealthier ones to raise property taxes.

Complicating matters are two elements. The formula has left wealthier districts, such as Charleston, with shortfalls that have to be equalized in separate legislation each year. Property-tax reform, approved by the Legislature in 2006, that swaps revenue from sales taxes with taxes on homes has increased those deficits.

The second significant element at play is a tangled mess of funding sources that flow to a district with restrictions. In other words, state lawmakers have decided how school districts are to spend state cash, designating money for programs, and not allowing districts to make local decisions about what's best for their individual student populations.

Bill Gillespie, the state's chief economist, didn't mince words: the situation comes down to political will.

" 'How's it affect my district? Well, I'm going to lose some money so I am not going to vote for it,' " Gillespie said. "We all know that.

Outgoing state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex provided a series of recommendations to the senators, such as granting districts flexibility by lifting decrees from Columbia and providing teachers with performance incentives. First, though, Rex said change starts with a commitment from the lawmakers.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell said he pledges that commitment.

"Whenever you attempt to reform a status quo system, there is always significant pushback," Harrell said. "Despite these challenges, I intend to continue fighting to reform the way education is funded in our state so that every child receives the best education possible."

Over the next three months, the Senate subcommittee will develop legislation for the lawmakers to consider when they return to Columbia in January. The panel will meet again at 10 a.m. Sept. 28.