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Home arrow Media Center arrow A high-quality education
A high-quality education

By Lee Tant, Times and Democrat
January 04, 2009

South Carolina’s public schools are constitutionally required to provide only a “minimally adequate” education for students.

State Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, wants to change that.

He has prefiled a bill that seeks to amend the state’s constitution to mandate that students receive a “high quality education allowing each student to reach his highest potential.” A similar bill has been filed in the House.

Matthews says the bill would change the state’s mission statement regarding education. Too many children are falling behind because they are not properly educated, he said.

“It will change an important document which sets the standard for public education,” he said.

Matthews contends the change will not cost the state anything to enact, but Gov. Mark Sanford’s spokesman begs to differ.

Spokesman Joel Sawyer said a phrasing change would virtually guarantee the state will be in court for decades determining the legal definition of “high quality.” Parents, groups and schools would sue the state for failing to live up to an ambiguous standard, he said.

“Everybody wants a high-quality education in South Carolina, but adding a couple of words does nothing toward actually getting us there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Matthews believes the current language in the state constitution is no longer relevant.

“We are in the 21st century and, with our knowledge-based economy, we need language that reflects the current situation,” he said.

Matthews also thinks the change could be a catalyst for reforming the state’s tax structure. Public education is currently funded with sales tax revenue.

If the bill passes the General Assembly, it would require voter approval.

“We’re trying to get it on the ballot for 2010,” Matthews said.

An online petition in favor of the bill currently has more than 29,000 signatures. Bud Ferillo, producer of the “Corridor of Shame” documentary, is leading the petition effort.

Matthews’ goal is to get one million signatures by the summer of 2010.

“Everybody we’ve talked to is very much in favor of doing this,” he said.

South Carolinians for Responsible Government President Randy Page, however, is emphatically opposed to the change.

He labels the effort “a political ploy that helps no one.”

“Frankly, I think this particular sham is a slap in the face to teachers across the state who are daily striving to deliver a high-quality education whether the constitution calls for it or not,” Page said.

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Jim Rex supports the bill.

Rex says it’s important to clearly establish higher expectations than being “minimally adequate.” In addition, he thinks the change would show the state supports public education.

However, he stated such a change would only be symbolic.

“It’s going to take more than changes in our constitution. It will help,” he said.

Over time, Rex hopes a “high quality” benchmark will eventually lead to more state funding.

Page said the $11,480 schools got per pupil this year is more than enough.

He said “cutting and pasting” the State Constitution won’t increase school funding. It will invite a series of expensive and fruitless lawsuits, he said.

Sawyer notes the phrase “minimally adequate” does not even appear in the state’s Constitution. It was constructed by the state Supreme Court after school districts claimed they were not adequately funded.

A group of school districts sued and, eventually, Judge Thomas Cooper ruled that only the state’s early childhood education programs were underfunded. That prompted the General Assembly to establish a pilot program for 4-year-old kindergarten.


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