SC Students Outperforming Expectations
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Our public schools are a promise that we make to one another, a promise to care for children. Those children are our most important legacy.
Everyone knows that South Carolina is a pro-business state. For decades we've been told, “Take care of the Chamber of Commerce, and they’ll take care of everyone else.” That hasn't happened. South Carolina cut more from education during the recession than any other state (24.1%). We ended up spending 76 cents for every dollar we used to spend on our kids.
Asked what he would do about this, one legislator replied, “I’m not a fan of throwing good money after bad.” What did he mean? Do you think you know?
South Carolina schools are at the bottom of every list. Thank goodness for Mississippi, right?
NAEP scores (“The Nation’s Report Card”) are the gold standard of education data. In 2011, in every subject and grade level tested, South Carolina students ranked between 34th and 39th in the country. That’s not head of the class, but it’s not bottom of the barrel, either. It was even better before we cut $700 million from education. Our average ranking was 32nd in 2005. Fourth-grade math plummeted from 21st in the nation to 37th during those years.
Now let’s put those figures in context: SC has 28% child poverty. Only three states have higher rates. More than a quarter of our children literally did not know where their next meal was coming from. Child poverty is the best predictor of academic failure. Nothing else comes close. Kids in poverty face challenges the rest of us cannot imagine.
The truth is that SC public schools are vastly outperforming their demographics. Our 4th graders who are not poor are reading better than or equal to peers in 21 states. Our teachers are working miracles under intensely challenging conditions. They’ve proven that they can do better with proper resources, but they have nothing to apologize for.
So why does the myth persist that our schools are bottomless pits of failure? Who benefits from that kind of thinking?
The answer is pretty clear: anyone with an agenda that involves defunding public education, siphoning public dollars into private schools and for-profit charters, or disempowering educators. That's a pretty tidy description of the education agenda of corporate-funded ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). Don't know them? They've bought quite a bit of influence in our state.
For the most part, it also describes the agenda of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst, now looking to do the same here in South Carolina. Rhee's group relentlessly promotes such myths about public schools.
ALEC has spent considerable resources promoting the factoid that SC schools had, "the lowest growth on NAEP of any state over the last decade." True enough, but unbelievably disingenuous when removed from it's proper context.
We made the biggest cuts to education in the country during that decade, largely as a result of disastrous tax policies promulgated by ALEC.
You don't have to be an economist to see that funding schools from sales tax on the eve of a recession is a recipe for disaster, but even conservative economists warned against it when Act 388 was passed. What people at ALEC like about it is that it lowers property taxes for the wealthiest while shifting the burden onto lower-income citizens. In the process, the funding stream becomes incredibly unstable.
When the recession hit, working-class people didn’t stop flipping houses. They stopped flipping burgers. Then they stopped buying stuff, and we ran up massive deficits.
It didn’t help that Supt. of Education Mick Zais refused to dirty his hands with $144 million in federal stimulus that went to 49 other states. They were happy to take your money to keep their teachers on the job. When we made the most drastic cuts to education in America, class sizes skyrocketed. Thousands of teachers were fired. Others are still not receiving the salaries they were promised. We had serious discussions about cutting ten days off the school year, and student performance levels dropped.
Education is the best weapon we have against poverty. Unfortunately for those who struggle, our budgets don’t allow for the kinds of interventions that other states invest in. Many people are fixated on the notion that we need to cut taxes. Last year, with a billion dollar budget surplus, Gov. Haley tried to cut education funding by $80 million to offset cutting corporate taxes, hoping to drop the rate to 0%.
Some states suffer crushing tax burdens. South Carolina is not one of them. Our state-and-local tax burden is among the lowest in the nation. It’s lower today than at any point in at least 30 years. We have the lowest per-capita tax collections in the United States. That’s where we’re bottom of the list, not academics.
Cutting rates would be fine if our tax structure were meeting our obligations. That’s not happening. South Carolina has an infamous phrase to describe the standard of education we will provide to children – “minimally adequate”. State law also contains a funding formula that describes how much we should be spending to deliver a minimally adequate education. This year, it comes to $2790 per child.
We are $689 below that. A school with 725 children is being shortchanged half-a-million dollars.
There are at least 49 ways of meeting our obligations to children that would be more effective. We’re far behind on a funding stream that was grossly unfair to rural schools in the best of times.
Please visit tinyurl.com/fndschls to tell our leaders to restore school funding. Our children deserve nothing less.
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