Is Haley education’s new champion?

January 17, 2014 

Gov. Nikki Haley high fives eight-year-old Joyce Ortiz during the Original Six Foundation's Barnwell County Spring Fling health and job fair at Barnwell High School. The event featured health screenings and employment information.

GERRY MELENDEZ — GMELENDEZ@THESTATE.COM

— Some partisan critics immediately wrote off Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposal to spend more money on poor students as a too-tardy election-year ploy, designed to undercut support for her likely Democratic challenger, Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

But if that’s what’s driving the plan she unveiled last week, it suggests that the governor believes there’s a lot more public support for our schools than our legislators do, and perhaps they'll get that message.

And if they do get that message – if, after two decades of ignoring the pleas of education advocates, our legislators agree to address the fact that it costs more to educate poor children than their better-off peers – then why would it matter whether the governor sincerely cares or just wants to strengthen her hand politically?

The too-long ignored truth is that our test scores and our per-capita income and our jobless rate aren’t going to improve dramatically until we do a better job educating poor kids who live in poor communities, many of whom can’t even count to 10, don’t know how to follow instructions and have little parental support when they come to school. These kids need our best teachers, but they usually end up with the worst ones. They need the most intensive teaching, but they usually end up with the spottiest.

I’m sorry that this initiative could undercut Mr. Sheheen’s plan to further increase the availability of 4-year-old kindergarten. We absolutely need to provide high-quality kindergarten to more 4-year-olds, and when it comes to the poorest children, we really need to be getting involved earlier.

Likewise, we absolutely need to provide money for new facilities for the poorest districts. We absolutely need to provide incentives to entice the best teachers to poor districts and poor schools, and for that matter, we need to start worrying about the decreasing attractiveness of the profession.

We ought to be doing all of that. But if we could do only one thing right now to improve education, it would be to provide more money to teach those tougher-to-teach children.

Gov. Haley proposes to do that by adjusting the state’s primary school-funding formula, the one that pays teacher salaries and other classroom basics. That formula assigns each student a score of 1.0. Then it adds a 0.3 “weighting” for kindergarten students and 0.25 for high school students, and 0.74 for students with learning disabilities and 1.57 for students with autism, and so on. Once every student’s number is calculated, all those numbers are added up, and money is distributed to districts based on their percentage of that total.

Gov. Haley wants to add 0.2 – 20 percent – for students who receive free or reduced-price lunches or Medicaid. She also would add 0.2 for some students with low English proficiency, and 0.15 for students who fail to meet state standards.

That is a huge step. And anyone who says otherwise either isn’t paying attention or else is interested in something other than improving education for the neediest in our state.

But it’s only a first step. Poverty is so pervasive that money from the extra poverty rating will flow into every district, indeed, into every school, in the state. That means that much less of the additional $100 million will go to the poorest districts than most would expect. And that’s why the next step – a step that the governor or the Legislature really ought to go ahead and take this year – is to add an extra weighting for schools with the highest concentrations of poverty.

You might have expected that to be the initial criticism of the plan, but Democratic critics have been so focused on trying to downplay the significance of the proposal that they haven’t realized its significance – or how it could be improved. And the initial reaction of many Republican lawmakers has been to focus on the amount of money involved – money that wouldn’t be available to spend on other areas of state government – and ignore the important policy change being proposed.

I suspect the cautious and ham-handed responses come from the fact that most people were caught so completely off guard by the proposal; I certainly didn’t expect anything this significant. Gov. Haley’s proposal is important not because it’s a new idea; it’s not a new idea. It’s important because the governor is making it. It’s important because the governor who belongs to the ruling party of our state has just taken the Holy Grail of school equity and made it her priority.

Are there trade-offs involved in her proposal? Certainly so. For instance, she pays for a third of the poverty weighting by eliminating another program that pays for teaching at-risk students. But if she’s providing enough money to pay for two-thirds of the goal we’ve known we needed to reach for two decades – longer, really – then how can we call that anything other than a huge step forward?

Am I suspicious that there might be gremlins in her proposal? Absolutely. I get suspicious anytime someone implies, as she did when she talked with editorial writers last week, that there’s a lot of money to be found in streamlining funding formulas and sources. There’s a whole lot of sense to be found in that, but savings? Not so much, and suggestions to the contrary make me wonder if there might be some hidden cuts in that streamlining. But that’s what legislative debate is for: to find possible problems and decide how important they are.

As for questions about the governor’s motivations, here’s the happy news: We will know, well in advance of the November election, how serious she is about this.

And if she manages to push the Legislature to take the first step toward solving one of our most damaging, and longest-neglected, problems, and we have to spend the fall talking about which improvement to undertake next rather than why the governor hasn’t done anything on education, how could anyone who cares about our state consider that a bad thing?

Cindi Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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