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Home arrow Media Center arrow 'High Quality' Schools Sought
'High Quality' Schools Sought

S.C. education advocates push for change in constitution

By John Monk, The State Newspaper
Friday, April 25, 2008

John Monk
John Monk
The folks who pushed for better public schools by bringing you mass rallies, a $6 million, 15-year lawsuit, and the “Corridor of Shame” documentary have opened up a new front.  This week, they launched an Internet petition drive to get 1 million signatures to persuade the Legislature to allow voters to amend the constitution to say South Carolina must provide a “high quality” public education.

The constitution now requires the state to provide an education, but doesn’t say what kind. A 1999 S.C. Supreme Court decision interpreted that to mean “minimally adequate.”

“The words ‘minimally adequate’ are a terrible mission statement,” said Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, a former principal. He has tried, but thus far failed, to persuade fellow senators to put a “high quality” constitutional amendment on the ballot.
“The mission statement defines what we want to accomplish,” Matthews said.His resolution appears to be going nowhere in a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

Bud Ferillo, coordinator of the petition drive for a coalition of activists, religious groups, business people and philanthropists, said if state lawmakers had allowed a constitutional amendment to go before voters, this drive would not be necessary.
“It is probably too late to get an amendment proposal on the ballot this year, but we want it on the ballot in 2010,” Ferillo said.
Organizers will ask candidates for state offices, including governor, to publicly declare in 2010 whether they want a ‘high quality’ public education or a ‘minimally adequate’ one, Ferillo said.

Ferillo is producer of the 2005 “Corridor of Shame” film, which documented squalid, unsafe and unhealthy conditions in many of the state’s poor, mostly black counties. It has been shown in colleges around the state and broadcast on ETV.
Those conditions still exist today, said state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, who signed the petition Thursday at a meeting of the Laurens Rotary Club.

“People understand increasingly our future as a state is going to be determined by what we do for this generation of children,” Rex said.
Thus, said Rex, details of what “high quality” means and how much money needs to be spent will have to be worked out. But setting “high quality” education as a constitutional standard is a vital symbolic statement, he said.

“If you believe you can do better, odds increase dramatically that you will,” he said.

After he spoke to Laurens Rotarians, many of them signed the petition, too, Rex said.

South Carolina is not like California or other states that allow citizens to mount petition drives to get issues on the ballot. Nor does the state have a rich tradition of successful mass movements, said Laura Woliver, USC political science and women’s studies professor.
But, she said, this petition drive has elements that could make it successful: The backers have been persistent, they are operating on many fronts, and they are framing the issue in a way that forces politicians to chose.

“It’s going to be very hard for a legislator to say he or she would favor ‘minimally adequate’ schools over ‘high quality’ ones,” said Woliver, who specializes in grass-roots activism.

Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he worries the petition drive obscures positive state acts to help public schools.

“We do a lot of things no one even talks about,” Courson said, adding that in the last 10 years, state spending on public education has increased to $3.3 billion from $1.9 billion.

Ferillo said the petition drive’s integrity will be protected by a requirement that people signing up give a legitimate e-mail address. Only S.C. residents will be counted. Non-voters, such as high school students, will be allowed to sign, he said.

The Web site is goodbyeminimallyadequate.com.

Names gathered on the petition drive will be used to form groups of activists around the state to lobby politicians.
The drive also will feature billboards and bright-colored rubber bracelets. People signing the petition also can contribute money to the drive.

Late Thursday, 1,787 people had signed.

Backers of the petition drive include Republican business leader John Rainey and Spartanburg Mayor Bill Barnett.

“Imagine if football coach Vince Lombardi told his players to go out and do a ‘minimally adequate’ job!” Rainey said.

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