With an $829 million budget hole to fill, S.C. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say K-12 education - the state's largest budget expense - needs to be reformed to save money.
Some of the ideas floating around the Statehouse and making their way into legislation sound like smart fixes. Consider two popular proposals - consolidating school districts, endorsed by state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, and privatizing the state-owned school-bus system, endorsed by Gov. Nikki Haley.
Would they save money?
Some consolidation would save roughly $26 million. It's not a lot, but every $26 million helps when you're trying to fill an $829 million hole.
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And the buses? Service might improve. But privatization probably would cost more.
Here's a deeper look at the two popular proposals.
The argument for consolidating the state's 85 school districts into a smaller, hopefully more efficient number can be made in Spartanburg County.
There, seven school districts operate within a single county, employing seven superintendents, seven human-resource departments, seven legal departments and more. Spartanburg is not alone.
Seventeen of the state's 46 counties have more than one school district. York County has four.
"Could consolidating save taxpayers in administration costs? Sure," said state Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union, a teacher. "In Spartanburg, you're talking about seven superintendents, each making good money, and a lot of other duplication of services."
Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly generally agree consolidation is a good idea. But will voters go along with it, knowing it means less local control?
"Right now, each little area has its own school boards. They can make very local decisions that work for their specific area, their specific group of students," Anthony said. "Consolidation means they'll lose some of that."
Will it save money?
A 2003 study, the most recent one, by the Columbia consulting firm of Miley & Associates found that if it were possible to combine S.C. school districts so that none had fewer than 2,500 students, the state's cost would drop by nearly $26 million, or about 1 percent of what the state spent on K-12 education last year.
"Twenty-six million is no drop in the bucket," said Jo Anne Anderson, director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the state's education watchdog group, which commissioned the study. "But when you're talking about a $2.5 billion enterprise (the amount the state spends on public education each year), is it worth it?"
The 2003 study warned against a one-size-fits-all approach to determining district size, saying the state's school districts are diverse in terms of poverty levels, the type of students they serve and their ability to raise local money. In other words, students in some counties would be best served by one large school district while others would be best served with several small districts.
Zais has said he favors consolidation but does not think the goal should be to reduce the state's 85 school districts to 46, or one per county. Instead, Zais and the Education Oversight Committee encourage school districts to consolidate departments such as legal services and human resources.
Privatizing bus system
South Carolina's public school-bus system is in sad shape, and an argument is brewing over whether it's to better fund the system or hand it over to the private sector.
With no state money to buy new buses during the past two years, the state Department of Education, which runs the fleet, has started selling out-of-commission buses to scrap-metal companies. The department spends the cash that it raises to buy used school buses from other states.
Earlier this month, the department bought school buses, built in 1992, from Alabama school districts. Lawmakers approved a plan to buy new buses annually in 2007. But they have not funded that plan in the past two years.
So what's the solution when cash-strapped state government cannot pay for new buses? Every other state privatizes its school-bus system to some degree.
The hope is that privatization would first get the bus system off the state dollar and secondly, result in a more efficient system that better serves students.
Two school districts, Charleston and Beaufort, have privatized parts of their bus operations, primarily because they could not hire enough bus drivers. In 1996, the Charleston district outsourced hiring of drivers and running of routes.
The benefits, according to Katie McClure, the district's transportation director, have included additional flexibility on where the buses can go, backup buses when there are breakdowns and enough drivers to get students to not only traditional schools but magnet schools, charter schools and other "choice" schools the district is pushing.
The data are split on whether privatization would save money.
An unofficial 2005 study found privatization might save districts money. But a 2006 study, done by a transportation consulting firm for the state Department of Education, found it likely would cost more.
The study said the state-run bus system is "very simple, lean and cost-efficient" and advised against allowing an outside company to run the system. Targeted privatization - like what Charleston County has done - could be an option, the study said, and would give local districts more flexibility.