State overdue in helping schools

S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said recently that the state is “breaking the law” by refusing to provide access to a decent education to every student in the state. That should make state lawmakers stand up and take notice.

But it is doubtful they will. They have had decades to deal with this disparity and have not risen to the challenge.

Perhaps it is because they believe they are above the law or that the law is whatever they say it is. Or maybe they place a higher priority on pinching pennies than on helping the state’s poorer school districts meet the needs of students.

But when Spearman refers to breaking the law, she is speaking literally. A new state law requires every student in South Carolina to graduate with the skills to attend college or pursue a career, but the Legislature has not provided the necessary money to achieve that standard.

The effort to improve education in poorer rural districts stems from a ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court. Two years ago, the court ruled that the state’s public school system has failed to provide all children with the quality education garanteed by the state Constitution, and ordered lawmakers and school districts to come up with solutions.

To date, the Legislature has failed to comply with that order, choosing instead to essentially maintain the status quo. Last year, state lawmakers budgeted $430 million more for education than nine years ago before the recession, but that amounts to only slightly more in inflation-adjusted dollars and doesn’t account for a 6 percent increase in the state’s student population.

We hope lawmakers can do more this year to at least begin to address this gross unfairness. Spearman has a proposal that could provide more money for poorer districts.

She thinks tax revenues from large corporations lured to the state by fat tax breaks and other perks should be shared statewide and not just benefit the district where the companies reside. She reasons that all residents help pay for the tax breaks and all districts, therefore, should benefit from the resulting revenues.

The proposal is likely to be a hard sell. Gov. Nikki Haley already has declared that she won’t endorse a statewide approach to funding schools.

Haley, to her credit, has proposed using state money to help districts upgrade crumbling schools. But lawmakers rejected her proposal this year, meaning that districts with small tax bases will have to continue to raise the money locally to fix their schools.

The state has taken a few baby steps toward finding ways to help poor districts, such as mandating a survey of college students to see what it would take to attract them to teach in rural districts. But educators in needy districts note that these measures merely scratch the surface.

Meanwhile, students who have only one shot at a decent education are falling through the cracks. That not only defies the court’s mandate, it also represents a tragic waste of students’ talents and energy.

We hope this finally is the year that lawmakers get serious about helping poor rural school districts. But we fear that lawmakers have neither the will nor the desire to confront this perplexing problem and find the money needed to fix it.