|S.C. standard for education should be higher|
T& D Opinion, The Times and Democrat
They are more than words in South Carolina. "Minimally adequate" is the description for the education guaranteed the state's public school students.
Bowman Sen. John Matthews and others want to change that. It's a definition that's overdue for overhaul.
Fifteen years ago, 37 South Carolina school districts brought a lawsuit against the state of South Carolina in which they said their current modest property tax bases made it impossible for them to generate funding levels enjoyed by more affluent districts. When Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper dismissed their lawsuit in 1996, the school districts appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled that the state had an obligation to provide, at the very least, a "minimally adequate education." The majority opinion said the state's public school system should produce students who can read, write and do basic math calculations. The Supreme Court then returned the case to cooper for trial to determine if the plaintiffs' complaints had merit.
After a 103-day trial, the longest in state history, Cooper ruled in 2005 that the state did not provide a "minimally adequate education" in early childhood education. But otherwise, he ruled, the state's public school system met the Supreme Court's standard.
The plaintiff districts and the state filed motions to reconsider with Judge Cooper, but both motions were dismissed in 2007. The plaintiff districts (now numbering 36 due to the consolidation of two districts) are appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Matthews has pushed to change the definition, saying the state must do better in the 21st century than “minimally adequate.” It is a standard that is outdated in the modern world of competition among states for development. It sends the wrong message and does not speak to the ongoing improvement efforts by the state.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex cites Florida as an example. Its state constitution once required only a system of free public schools. But in a constitutional referendum 10 years ago, 71 percent of Florida voters approved new language that made high-quality public schools a “paramount duty” of the state.
Florida’s amended constitution now reads: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.
“It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.
“Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education...”
Matthews has had little success advancing legislation that would give South Carolina voters the opportunity to amend the constitution to require “high-quality” schools.
The change would send an important message -- which is what Matthews, Rex and others are doing now with a petition drive urging in favor of the amendment.
“This petition is a symbolic gesture,” Rex said, “but it’s an important symbolic gesture. It’s a way for South Carolinians to express their aspirations for something better – and to send that message to the General Assembly.
“Will a constitutional amendment solve the deep-seated problems of public education in South Carolina? Of course not. But significant improvements have been made in our state, improvements that have been nationally recognized. More changes are on the way. In the meantime, South Carolina needs a constitutional standard that defines our goals and aspirations better than ‘minimally adequate.’ I believe voters should define that standard, not judges.”
The amendment is unlikely to be on the ballot in 2008, with supporters hoping for 2010. It’s a change voters likely would approve.
Persons interested in the petition can visit www.goodbyeminimallyadequate.com to sign electronically or download a printable version.
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