Whatever the motivations, the fact that South Carolina’s leaders are having a serious conversation about how to improve education in the state is a welcome development.
This is an election year, so any new proposal to boost schools is certain to have political implications. But once we acknowledge that, so what? The key question is how best to improve the overall educational opportunities for the state’s children, especially those who live in impoverished communities.
This week, Gov. Nikki Haley introduced a package of proposed education reforms that includes a $177 million increase in educational spending. Of that, $97 million would be used to help children who live in poverty.
Haley, who grew up and attended school in the small rural town of Bamberg, said her personal experience was a key motivation in her decision to focus on providing help and resources to poorer school districts. Her plan also proposes spending $6 million for summer reading camps in rural areas to help ensure that students don’t backslide during the longer summer vacation.
The plan features $30 million to hire reading coaches for all elementary schools in the state. This is part of a key goal to ensure that all students can read by the third grade.
Another $29 million would be used to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools, $12 million for digital instruction in the classroom and $4 million to train teachers to use the technology.
Those all are worthy priorities. Haley, to her credit, conducted something of a listening tour before putting together her proposal.
The governor said she spoke with principals, superintendents, school board members, university deans and teachers across the state to learn their top concerns. She said their comments figured significantly in how she shaped her plan.
This proposal represents an opening volley in a long battle ahead, one sure to be intensified by the overheated politics of an election year. What emerges from the Legislature – if anything – is almost certain to differ considerably from what Haley has proposed.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, Haley’s likely Democratic opponent in November, has offered a different approach focusing on universal kindergarten for 4-year-olds and a proposal launched last week to raise teacher salaries. The latter appeared to be timed to steal Haley’s thunder.
And there is skepticism about parts of Haley’s plan. She would pay for the increased spending entirely with projected increases in state tax collections, not a tax increase. We question whether she can rely on continuing economic growth alone to pay for what she concedes will be an 8- to 10-year process.
She dedicates $29 million in her plan to new technology. While much of that will be directed to districts based on their poverty rating, it won’t go far. Consider, for example, that the Rock Hill school district alone budgeted $9 million for its iRock program to provide iPads for every fourth- through 8th-grade student in the district.
Again, though, we are gratified that the governor and others in the state are seriously talking about improving education. Even better, a debate on education seems certain to be part of the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.
That debate is long overdue.