Fixing education woes will take time

While a slight – but dwindling – chance remains that state lawmakers will address some of the legislative priorities they listed at the beginning of this session, the destiny of education reform, at least for this year, already is known: It won’t happen.

In fact, that was apparent some time ago. It was clear almost from the start that legislative leaders found the prospect of tackling education reform this session to be too daunting.

We are inclined to agree that fixing the inequities in the state’s education system was too big a job to finish in the few months available. But we hope the Legislature has at least put the mechanisms in place to evaluate and pinpoint the problems, and to begin proposing real solutions.

This is a problem the Legislature no longer can ignore. In November, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s decades-old school funding formula fails to provide students in poor, rural districts equal access to a decent education. The court told legislators and district officials to fix the problem but offered no specific instructions and no deadline for doing so.

But action is long overdue. The case heard by the Supreme Court was 21 years old, and the disparity in the quality of education between rich and poor districts has been obvious for at least that long.

The failure to address this issue is shameful. Nonetheless, we concede that, having ignored the problem this long, the solution is likely to be complex, requiring more time to devise a plan.

Any solution is likely to include increased early child development, incentives for good teachers to work in poor districts, renovations to crumbling schools, greater dropout prevention efforts and substantive changes in the school funding formula. At this point, neither the S.C. House or Senate is close to proposing a bill along those lines.

We take heart, however, from the fact that Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, a committed advocate of education, heads a panel that will work in the off-season to devise legislation for next year. In the House, a 17-member committee created by House Speaker Jay Lucas – which includes educators – began meeting in February and is expected to make recommendations by January.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman, who addressed the Senate panel at its first meeting April 23, said that providing all at-risk children with high-quality educational opportunities will be a major priority during her first term. She also is working to coordinate volunteer groups to help this effort.

Advocates who have been pressing for change for decades, including the attorneys who represented the rural districts that sued the state in 1993, are angry that the wheels are turning so slowly. And they are right that the longer lawmakers delay, the greater chance that more children will miss their one chance at a decent education.

We hope, though, that lawmakers such as Hayes and Lucas are sincere in wanting to seek answers to this longstanding problem and ensure that their colleagues take action. While they will have some time to work out a solution, the process can’t drag on indefinitely.

In summary

While addressing the changes to the education system ordered by the state Supreme Court will take time, legislators can’t afford to drag their feet.