What looked like a legislative loss for Fort Mill schools could, it seems, be swinging in the opposite direction.
S.C. House Rep. Brian White of Dist. 6 in Anderson County and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, announced Friday an ad hoc group has been appointed to study state education funding.
House members from Aiken, Beaufort, Charleston, Dillon, Lexington, Oconee and Union will sit on the committee. Those areas have school systems in low-income communities considered chronically underfunded for so long that the S.C. Supreme Court ordered the state to find a solution. Meanwhile, fast-growing districts in more affluent areas like York County find it increasingly difficult to keep up with demand.
“The state will provide $4.4 billion for K-12 education next year,” White said in a statement. “Over a third of the state’s general fund budget goes to public education.”
The legislator recognizes some methods of determining school funding need updating.
“For nearly 40 years, the General Assembly has taken a piecemeal approach to education policy and funding,” White said. “We have added layers of burdensome requirements on school districts and teachers and we are now stuck with funding formulas that are overcomplicated and outdated.”
Districts like Fort Mill and Clover, inundated with new students in recent years due to housing booms, have argued for some time reform is needed. Of most concern is Act 388, which a decade ago took away districts’ ability to tax for operations on homes in favor of a sales tax increase growing districts say never made up the difference.
Yet a major piece of the school funding formula predating Act 388 remains, requiring school districts to tax based on the property values in their community before the state sends money their way. So one state rule accounts for the high tax base of largely residential areas, while another states it can’t be taxed for school operations.
The Fort Mill School District put out statistics showing it would need more than $1 million this year to make up the difference from what the district would have received had Act 388 never passed. Several municipalities passed resolutions in favor of the district’s call for change at the state level.
State Sen. Wes Climer, whose 15th District covers Fort Mill and Tega Cay, worked with other legislators to get $5 million in new money in this year’s state budget for high-growth school districts. They also increased the per student cost allotment by $75. However, Climer said, the bigger win would have been a committee to review Act 388 and its impacts on school funding.
That proposal didn’t make the cut at budget time earlier this month, though some legislators vowed to look into the issue on their own. Climer said he intends to keep bringing the issue up for debate.
Education funding isn’t an easy issue to solve, as he learned while getting the per student increase and the $5 million that will be spread over a number of districts. Fort Mill will get about $120,000. About a $10 per student difference.
“You put forth multiple ways of achieving your goal,” Climer said. “We fought on the Senate floor for over three hours to get this.”
Until Act 388 is addressed, he said, fixes like the new money in this year’s budget are just a temporary, even if needed, help. His biggest hope for the new money is it establishes among state legislators there is a funding issue — they approved money for one, after all — for further discussion next year.
“It doesn't solve the problem, but it’s progress,” Climer said. “And for a problem as big as ours, we need progress.”
White’s announcement Friday never specifically mentioned Act 388. It did mention existing issues with the way education is funded, and a need to help school districts fix it.
“We need to simplify education funding and allow school districts the flexibility to decide how best to get the most out of state resources,” White said.