Democrats circulate petition to change S.C. constitution’s language
By GINA SMITH - The State
Nov. 28, 2008
Seeking to capitalize on their party’s “yes, we can” enthusiasm — and, perhaps, launch a bid for governor
— two S.C. Democrats have launched a petition drive to change the state constitution to guarantee S.C. children a “high quality education.”
The S.C. Constitution guarantees children only “a minimally adequate education,” courts have ruled.
That’s not enough, say the two Democrats — state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, widely thought to be considering a bid for the governorship in 2010, and Sen. John Matthews of Orangeburg, a retired principal who filed a bill last session to change the constitution’s language.
Matthews plans to refile the bill when the Legislature returns to Columbia in January, Smith said. If the Legislature approves the wording change, which the petition urges them to do, voters would have the final say, approving or rejecting the change in the November 2010 statewide election.
Smith and Matthews hope to get a million signatures on their petition asking the Legislature to let voters change the Constitution.
The two Democrats say the wording change isn’t window dressing but a step toward making real improvements to public schools.
Future steps they hope the petition could lead to include:
• A new funding formula for schools that state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex plans to have introduced this coming legislative session. Rex also is calling for statewide 4K kindergarten for at-risk children.
• An emergency bank to help pay for school buildings, which Smith plans to propose next year.
• Measures to ensure the new state standardized test, which is replacing PACT, will give teachers feedback quickly on students’ weaknesses.
However, critics, including Gov. Mark Sanford, say the proposal by Smith and Matthews is a step in the wrong direction.
“It took the court over a decade to determine what ‘minimally adequate’ meant,” said Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesman. “How much more time will we waste trying to determine what ‘high quality’ means instead of doing something about it?
“It’s an admirable sentiment, but the effort is begging for decades of litigation that could be spent actually improving education in South Carolina.”
However, Smith said he is hopeful a bipartisan group of lawmakers can pass the bill.
Said Smith: “When I talk to people about education in this state, I ask, ‘In what area of your life would you be satisfied with minimally adequate? Would you be satisfied with a minimally adequate marriage? A minimally adequate car?’”
Smith has been widely mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, a post last held by a Democrat — Jim Hodges — who also touted education.
Republican Sanford cannot run for re-election, having been elected to two terms.
Smith said Tuesday he has not decided whether to run for governor.
But, after returning in May from Afghanistan, where he commanded a nine-man S.C. Army National Guard team, Smith said, “I’ve come back ... with a renewed desire to play a greater role in improving this state.
“There’s no place in South Carolina for a Corridor of Shame, and we have the means to make sure there isn’t,” he said, referring to a 2005 documentary that detailed the challenges of the state’s rural school districts along the I-95 corridor.
The meaning of “minimally adequate” has been the subject of a decades-long lawsuit, pitting poor, rural school systems, and their underachieving students, against the state.
A 1999 S.C. Supreme Court ruling said the state constitution requires the Legislature to provide children with only a “minimally adequate” education.
Subsequently, in 2005, Circuit Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. ruled the state provides most school-age students with a chance to get a “minimally adequate education” but should direct more resources to help younger students.
Last year, the 36 rural districts, suing the state Legislature over funding, appealed Cooper’s ruling. If the rural districts win, the state might have to overhaul the way it pays for education.
While a court decision on that appeal could come before the end of 2008, Smith and Bud Ferillo, director/producer of “Corridor of Shame,” said the state shouldn’t wait on a ruling.
“We want the state of South Carolina standard to be one that moves us in the direction of excellence, not one of mediocrity,” said Ferillo, who is coordinating the petition drive at GoodbyeMinimallyAdequate.com.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.