|Petition Drive Backs 'High Quality' Education Standard|
State Senator Wants to Upgrade from "Minimally Adequate"
State Sen. John Matthews wants to put an end to the days of “minimally adequate” education in South Carolina and raise the bar. Matthews, D-Orangeburg, is pushing an amendment to the S.C. Constitution that would require the state to provide a “high quality education, allowing each student to reach his highest potential.”The constitution mandates that the state provide “for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children” of South Carolina. But the constitution does not say what kind of education.
The state Supreme Court has interpreted the requirement to mean “minimally adequate.”
The court came up with that definition in 1999 during a years-long lawsuit against the state by more than 30 poor, rural school districts. The districts charge that the state is not meeting its education obligation.
In 2005, a circuit court judge ruled in the state’s favor but said the state ought to do more on early childhood education.
The districts appealed back to the high court, which has scheduled oral arguments on the appeal for June 25.
“I look at our constitution and the clause on education as the mission statement on education,” says Matthews, a former elementary school principal, “and my thoughts are that we ought to set the bar high.”
Matthews says he has proposed the “high quality” change a few times. “Well, I have not quite been able to figure that out yet,” he says of why it has not passed.
Meanwhile, a statewide grassroots petition drive has sprouted to nix the minimally adequate standard and pressure the General Assembly to pass Matthews’ proposal. It requires a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate, approval by voters in a referendum and legislation to ratify the results of the ballot question.
The governor has no official hand in a constitutional amendment.
Supporters hope to obtain 1 million signatures on the petition and get the referendum onto the ballot of the 2010 elections. As of press time more than 3,700 people had signed it.
The petition drive has garnered backing across the political spectrum on behalf of everyone from school students to big-time public officials.
“I had hoped that there would be bipartisan support for Sen. Matthews’ legislation because it’s an issue that transcends party lines,” says John Rainey, chairman of the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors and an attorney who lives in Camden. “We cannot have as the gold standard for education in this state ‘minimally adequate’ and expect to go anywhere.”
Rainey says the standard is crazy and would never be accepted in other arenas. “Steve Spurrier certainly is not interested in a minimally adequate team,” he says.
State Education Superintendent Jim Rex signed the petition April 24. “At one time or another, 48 of the 50 state constitutions have required not good schools, just free ones,” Rex says in a statement. “But some of those states — states who are our competitors for high-skilled and high-paying jobs — have decided to raise the bar for themselves. The time has come for South Carolina to join those states.”
The local Ferillo & Associates advertising firm is helping coordinate the petition drive. Bud Ferillo, owner and president of the company, produced the 2005 documentary Corridor of Shame, which chronicles deplorable conditions in many of the plaintiff districts.
The petition is available online. To sign it, visit goodbyeminimallyadequate.com.
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