The Best & Worst to Come: A Review of Education Policy for 2009-2010
As we review the best and worst education legislation of 2009, it’s also time to begin to consider what ideas are likely to resurface during the 2010 session.
There is no disputing that South Carolina’s educational system is among the worst in the United States (if not the developed world). Consider the following:
82 percent of schools in South Carolina failed to meet federal “adequate yearly progress” standards for 2008.
South Carolina has 11 of the nation’s 25 worst public schools.
The state has the 4th worst high school completion rate―56 percent—in the country.
South Carolina’s SAT scores are the worst in the Southeast and among the worst in the United States, ahead of only the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Maine.
None of these trends are new. Nor has there been any lack of good ideas―just a lack of political will to see these ideas through. Just as significant is that increased education spending has failed to improve student performance. For the past 10 years, K-12 education funding has consumed more than one-third of all state revenue and, including federal, state and local funding, exceeds $7 billion―the size of the entire General Fund budget. In spite of a massive increase in K-12 expenditures since the 1990s, South Carolina’s schools still rank among the worst in the country.
What we need instead is fundamental education reform focused on increasing student and parental choice, fostering competition, and reducing administrative burdens and expenses.
Best Ideas for 2010
1) Give Parents More Choice: Harvard researchers found that school choice scholarship recipients from low-income families scored higher in math and reading and were much more satisfied with their quality of education. These same benefits could have been given to children in South Carolina had school choice legislation not died in committee. S 520, which is eligible for consideration in 2010, would provide a tax credit for private school tuition or for donations to student scholarship organizations that would provide funding to low-income students wishing to attend private school.
2) Streamline Education Funding: Weighted student funding (WSF), or what supporters call “backpack funding,” is a student-centered mechanism of school funding in which funding is assigned to individual students, rather than via inflexible categorical programs. The primary benefits are reduced administrative costs and greater flexibility in funding effective programs. By all accounts, nearly every key stakeholder believes WSF should be implemented in South Carolina. Yet a consensus has not been reached regarding the details of the funding plan, with enacting legislation (H 3724) dying in committee during the 2009 session.
3) Encourage Competition: Research by Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby demonstrates that by fostering competition school choice improves achievement in public schools. In addition to school choice, the state could raise academic achievement by fostering the creation of additional charter schools and by promoting inter-district public school choice. Currently, South Carolina only has 31 charter schools while neighboring Georgia and North Carolina respectively have 71 and 98 charter school programs.
4) Consolidate School Districts: South Carolina has 46 counties and 85 school districts. H 3340 would prohibit counties from having multiple school districts. In this tight economy, reducing school administrative costs is the best way to make sure South Carolina’s children begin receiving adequate instructional time and resources.
5) Promote Transparency and Accountability: Last session, lawmakers mandated (H 3352) that school districts create online check registers for all expenditures greater than $100. A next step is to authorize the Legislative Audit Council to conduct random performance audits of school districts (H 3537). Another idea, introduced this past November (H 4197), would promote transparency, as well as reduce administrative costs, by transferring responsibilities for the Education Oversight Committee to the State Department of Education. The move would reportedly save $2 million annually and possibly bring some accountability to the very procedures (district report cards, statewide testing, etc.) aimed at holding schools accountable themselves.
Worst Ideas for 2010
1) Increasing Spending: When adjusted for inflation, education spending in South Carolina has increased by 126 percent since 1972. In fact, between 2006 and 2008, spending per child increased by almost 20 percent. The result? Test scores remain low and dropout rates high. Compare this to neighboring North Carolina where spending is consistently lower and reading and math scores at least 30 percent higher. More spending may be the politically easy answer, but it will not bring about fundamental reform.
2) Substituting Litigation for Real Reform: S 99 would amend the state constitution to require the public school system “to provide a high-quality education, allowing every student to reach their highest potential.” If such promises sound good, they are setting the stage for a series of wasteful (and expensive) lawsuits that will do little more than line the pockets of trial lawyers. South Carolina already does a fairly good job of allocating state and federal dollars to its poorest districts. The solution here is simple. Implement weighted student funding (see above) and the district within which a child resides becomes irrelevant. All things being equal, low-income children, no matter where they live, will be funded equally. It is difficult to imagine a fairer funding mechanism.