|'High Quality' Schools Sought|
S.C. education advocates push for change in constitution
By John Monk, The State Newspaper
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.
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.
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.
“People understand increasingly our future as a state is going to be determined by what we do for this generation of children,” Rex 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.
“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.
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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