How did we sink this far?
In 1984, the S.C. General Assembly passed the Education Improvement Act, which added a penny sales tax for improving schools. The added tax was earmarked for a laundry list of reforms, ranging from higher academic standards and teaching skills to creating partnerships among schools, parents and the community.
The EIA became a model for education reform in other states.
In 1977, the Legislature passed the Education Finance Act (EFA), which established a formula for sharing education costs between the state and local districts, based on the local community’s ability to pay.
Things started going downhill in 2003 with the election of Gov. Mark Sanford. Sanford, a libertarian Republican, spent the next eight years badmouthing public education and preaching the virtues of school vouchers.
Although Sanford failed in his quest to divert revenue to the families of the 10 percent of South Carolina children who don’t attend public school, he popularized the lie that public schools were failing.
In 2001 Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes Title I, the federal government’s principal mechanism for helping disadvantaged students. Better known as the No Child Left Behind Act, it required that states develop standards and goals for improving schools.
Like other states, South Carolina responded by implementing a battery of tests, which soon became the tail that wagged our schools. In theory, test results would cause states to shift resources to underachieving schools. In practice, they became a club in the hands of anti-school zealots like Sanford.
The picture darkened further in 2006 when the General Assembly passed Act 388, which eliminated school operating taxes on owner-occupied houses and replaced the lost revenue with a higher sales tax.
At best, Act 388 was a shell game, shifting the burden from rich homeowners, who objected to higher reappraisals of their waterfront mansions, to businesses and onto the backs of poor citizens, who pay a higher percentage of income in sales taxes. Worse, as the economy tanked during the Great Recession and revenues plummeted, the Legislature reneged on its commitment to school districts.
And just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais wants to eliminate state regulations that stipulate fourth- and fifth-grade English and math classes contain no more than 30 students. He also wants to kill maximum class sizes for pre-kindergarten, and music and physical education classes, and deep-six staffing ratios for principals, assistant principals, media specialists and guidance counselors.
Zais defends his proposal under the pretext of giving school districts “flexibility.”
He claims that since 2009 school districts have been allowed to waive these requirements, and – as far as he can tell – no districts have abused the privilege.
What Zais fails to say is that the waivers were granted because the General Assembly was wrestling with a fiscal crisis and couldn’t meet its obligations to school districts. In short, it was an emergency.
Abolishing minimum standards altogether under the pretext of “flexibility” is just the latest attempt by Zais and his ilk to undermine public schools. Like “accountability” and “school choice,” it’s a buzzword for sinister motives.
During visits to more than 220 schools, Zais says, he has been besieged by superintendents, principals and teachers who beg him to “reduce the bureaucratic red tape that ties our hands.”
Funny, but most of the educators I know say the man is notorious for declining to meet with them, preferring to closet himself with handpicked, ideologically compatible assistants.
In an interview earlier this year, former Gov. Dick Riley was asked how the Education Improvement Act passed in 1984 despite vehement opposition from South Carolina’s conservative lawmakers.
“We got out of the Legislature into the public domain, and it was very well received.” Riley said. “The people kind of rose up. Every legislator had a stack of calls from people back in their districts. … And finally we picked up more and more, and we finally got it done. And the people felt very good about themselves.”
Isn’t about time South Carolinians felt good about themselves – and their schools – once again?
Email former Herald Editor Terry Plumb at email@example.com.