|Modern school funding needed|
By Paul Krohne, The Greenville News
It's not often that those of us who support strengthening South Carolina's commitment to public education find a point of agreement with Gov. Mark Sanford on education issues.
It happened recently when, in a message to legislators regarding his decision not to veto the state's newly revised accountability system bill, the governor noted that it is time "to stop studying and start addressing" a revised funding formula for public schools.
We couldn't agree more. With accountability revisions behind us, the General Assembly should turn its attention to much-needed changes in the way South Carolina funds our public schools.
Numerous committees have studied the state's education needs -- the Education Oversight Committee, a Senate panel, and task forces appointed by State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. A special House Committee appointed by Speaker Bobby Harrell is presently studying the issue.
Several principles have emerged that the South Carolina School Boards Association strongly supports and that we believe should guide the state's decisions on funding reform.
To start, school funding changes should be considered within the context of a comprehensive overhaul of our tax system, which legislators agree is overdue. Over-reliance on the sales tax as a revenue source for schools, worsened when the Legislature replaced homeowner property taxes with a one-cent increase in the sales tax, is already creating financial difficulties for many schools. Tax reforms would help ensure that revenue for schools comes from sources that are stable, recurring, equitable and adequate for educational needs.
Second, education funding reforms should be guided by the goal of providing, in every school and every district, the resources needed to accomplish what we say we want schools to accomplish.
South Carolina is well known for having some of the highest academic standards in the nation, accompanied by a strong accountability system to measure how well schools are meeting them. Yet the Base Student Cost, which provides the foundation for school funding, was established four decades ago -- well before the landmark Education Accountability Act of 1998.
Resources have been added to education over the years since, but not aligned with or at the levels necessary to deliver the quality of education envisioned in our standards.
The committees that have studied education funding have determined what it takes to meet the high standards of the modern world -- more teachers, lower class sizes in all grades, more classroom resources to support teaching and learning, better access to technology.
In revising education funding, South Carolina should make the commitment to provide adequate resources for a world-class education, distributed equitably statewide.
Third, a revised funding formula should recognize the value of local investment in education. Local communities need and desire the freedom to choose educational programs that go beyond state minimums to meet the specific needs of their children. Local revenue tools should be expanded to preserve local control over education decisions.
Finally, South Carolina's new funding formula should at long last reflect the fact that it costs more to educate certain children -- those with special needs, those who are gifted, and especially children from poverty.
More than half of all schools in our state serve a population in which 70 percent or more of students live in poverty. In one out of every five schools, 90 percent or more of children live in poverty -- and the problem is getting worse instead of better. Additional funds for these children would give schools the resources to help compensate for the disadvantages of poverty with better early education, additional class time, health care and after-school and summer programs.
School funding study committees have identified sources of state funding that can be combined and redirected to support a foundation program realistically capable of providing the quality of education we say we want in every school.
Still, it is not likely that South Carolina can reach high standards with resources geared toward a "minimally adequate" education. Legislators must recognize that additional funding will be needed if we are ever to move from small steps forward to real, dramatic progress.
South Carolina's best leaders know that improving education is the key to accomplishing every good thing we want for our state -- less poverty, more and better businesses, good opportunities and higher incomes.
During the next year's session, our Legislature can stop studying school funding reform, and find the will to actually make it happen.
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