Friday, May 4, 2012

Educators defeat massive charter expansion bill*

Ah, Alabama.* You give us hope. If only you were nearer, so we might see more easily the lessons you offer.

Word from Montgomery this week informs us that the Alabama Senate has defied its more radical ideologues -- the far right-wingers demanding an immediate dismantling of public education in that state -- and replaced a massive expansion of Alabama charter school statutes with a bill restricting the impact area and attaching a more rigorous approval process.

And how much sadder it leaves us feeling, that in the same week that educators and public schoolchildren win in Alabama, educators and public schoolchildren lose here in South Carolina.

The Press-Register reports it:

The Alabama Senate passed a version of the Education Options Act Wednesday night, but the proposal was so watered down that even supporters doubted whether a charter school could ever be created under the bill, should it become law.

The latest incarnation of Senate Bill 513, sponsored by Pike Road Republican Sen. Dick Brewbaker, added several strict limitations to how and where charters could be created in Alabama.

A charter school could only be approved in the counties that contain Alabama’s four biggest cities: Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville, Brewbaker said. The bill previously required that no more than 20 charters could be created statewide, and only as replacements of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Wednesday’s version kept those provisions.

Perhaps most significantly, the new version of the bill would require the local school district’s superintendent — and every state lawmaker representing the area — to approve a charter school before it could be created, according to Brewbaker. They could not be overruled.

That would include lawmakers like Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.

"Just leave us alone," Smitherman said on the Senate floor. "I don’t want ‘em (charter schools). My citizens don’t want 'em. ... I am a full believer in public schools."

Say that man's name again: Senator Rodger Smitherman!

And listen to his words once more: "Just leave us alone," Smitherman said on the Senate floor. "I don’t want ‘em (charter schools). My citizens don’t want 'em. ... I am a full believer in public schools."

Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.

Senator Smitherman, tribune of the people, restorer of faith in the democratic process.

But the howling has begun, and it rolls around the halls of the Capitol still.

"There ain’t no way you’ll ever have a charter school in this bill," Sen. Trip Pittman, a Montrose Republican who voted for the legislation, told reporters with a laugh, when asked about the bill’s new restrictions.

Brewbaker disagreed, saying that if their district superintendent strongly supports a charter proposal, he thinks lawmakers will go along.

He added that another change to the bill requires the state superintendent to take over schools that are consistently low-performing. If lawmakers refuse a charter, they’ll likely see such a state takeover, Brewbaker said.

"The same schools have been failing students year after year, and it just goes on like that," Brewbaker said in an interview. "If this becomes law, a year after that day, at least one thing will change, and that will be who’s making the decisions at those low-performing schools, and that’s important."

The bill passed the Senate 23-12, on a largely party-line vote, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats against.

A House version of the legislation has yet to pass that chamber, and Brewbaker anticipated that House lawmakers would focus on his version, now that it’s through the Senate.

The first incarnation of the Education Options Act mandated that only non-profit organizations could run charter schools in Alabama. Brewbaker went further in the latest version, barring non-profits with poor performance records from running Alabama charters. Additionally, he said that the new bill would only allow non-profits to sub-contract work to for-profit companies if traditional schools in Alabama use for-profit companies for similar work.

In addition to its charter and state-takeover provisions, the bill also allows local school districts statewide to apply for waivers that would let them bypass state regulations.

Alabama Education Association head Henry Mabry, once a staunch opponent of the bill, said he was pleased with the changes Brewbaker made.

"The way it came out of the Senate is a marked improvement of the way it was introduced," Mabry said. "It’s certainly something that we could live with."

In fact, it's Mabry, the teacher leader, who is being given credit by the Alabama Political Reporter, a publication similar to Andy Brack's Statehouse Report here.

One of the big ticket items on the GOP list of “must pass bills” was charter schools. What posted out of the senate last night resembled a charter school bill in much the same way a skunk resembles a cat. Both are furry but most people wouldn’t let a skunk sit in their lap.

As an adult -- and not a politician -- when you are wrong you should admit it.

I thought and wrote that the AEA would lose the charter school fight. I thought AEA head Henry Mabry could not pull off the coup de grĂ¢ce of killing charter schools with a GOP super majority in control. I was wrong, Mr. Mabry, I apologize. You won, plain and simple.
If there was any doubt that the AEA is still the most powerful political organization in Alabama last night’s vote in the Senate should remove all doubt.

Now, let me make this clear, I am not opposed to the AEA. I understand its purpose, I just wish it were a teacher’s union and not a labor union. I mean really, do we need to promise bus drivers tenure and a lifetime pension? I think not. Teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow for Alabama’s children. I wish we could pay teacher 200k a year like we pay some government officials. If I were not a journalist I would be a teacher, in my later years I would like to teach “real journalism” something of a dying profession.

With this bill we can only pray that it will be a start toward pulling a few of our children out of failing schools. I have little hope. I really care about education. My teachers and professors helped shape the man I am today (some may think they didn’t do a very good job), but with all my failings I work hard to do my job to educate people about Alabama politics.
I commend Senator Brewbaker for getting this bill through the Senate, you did the best you could under tremendous opposition and wavering from within your own party.

But the real winner last night was Henry Mabry. He fought with guts and conviction, working the floor and making the rounds.

Congratulations from a humble journalist.

So let's ponder this question: What do educators in Alabama know, that educators in South Carolina do not?

I have to wonder: Does unity of purpose, and unity of action, have something to do with their victory?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Spartanburg doesn't want unfunded bus mandate

Editors of the Herald-Journal last week detailed their skepticism of Governor Nikki Haley's scheme to privatize the state's school bus system, declaring that they don't want another unfunded mandate sent down from Columbia.

I doubt that Haley will suddenly reverse course upon reading the editors' commentary; after all, they endorsed Vincent Sheheen against Haley in 2010, cautioning their readers against Haley's "platitudes."

Still, the editors in this instance -- as in that instance -- make perfect sense.

If state lawmakers decide to divest themselves of the state’s school bus system, they must do so in a manner that doesn’t place an unfunded mandate on school districts.

South Carolina is unlike other states in that the state owns and operates the school bus fleet. Gov. Nikki Haley and some lawmakers have been pushing to change that. They want to create a system that allows school districts to operate the buses on their own or hire private companies to operate their buses.

The state House was too divided on the issue to pass the proposal. Instead, lawmakers voted to form a study committee to look into the issue.

There is much room for improvement here.

The General Assembly rarely approves money to buy new school buses, so the average age of a bus in the fleet is about 14 years. The state often maximizes the money it does have by buying used buses from school operations in other states.

It is likely that there are efficiencies and improvements that privatization could bring to the school transportation system. Allowing districts control over their transportation systems might also allow them to better provide for their students’ needs.

But there is danger in changing the system as well. Many school district officials are afraid of an unfunded mandate — something state government requires them to do but fails to pay for. That is a legitimate fear.

School officials know it is likely that lawmakers will turn over the bus system to them and initially turn over the money that ran that system. But will that state allotment keep up with inflation?

As the buses age and need to be replaced, where will the money come from to buy new buses? That money isn’t in the annual budget. The General Assembly makes a special appropriation every so often. Will it give up this money when the buses are no longer a state concern?

As fuel prices continue to rise, will lawmakers increase the budget given to school districts to run the bus system? Or once lawmakers have washed their hands of the bus system, will they leave school districts to solve that problem on their own?

If bus service becomes a local issue, wealthier school districts will put more money into their systems than poorer districts. How long will it be before lawmakers are denouncing disparity in district bus systems and calling again for change?

Transportation is a critical element of our education system. South Carolina’s children need safe and reliable buses to take them to school and back home. They don’t need another political football tossed between Columbia and school districts.

As the study committee examines this issue, it should focus on enabling improvements, empowering school districts and avoiding saddling districts with a new financial burden they are ill-equipped to bear.

Lawmakers seek to punish unemployed educators

Let's begin with vocabulary.

"Employed" means having a job, and working.

"Unemployed" means not having a job, and not working.

"Unemployment benefits" are the weak, thin and pale safety net that South Carolina lawmakers pretend to offer our state's unemployed citizens as subsistence -- the barest minimum in funding that might help buy groceries and little else.

Because some public employees are only employed for nine months out of the year, simple arithmetic reveals that they are unemployed for three months out of the year. My elementary math teachers would be pleased at my ability to work out that equation.

Some of our lawmakers have stumbled upon the same answer, and they've realized that, indeed, unemployed citizens qualify for unemployment benefits. This, according to some lawmakers, is unacceptable.

So they seek to punish the unemployed -- for being unemployed.

Wouldn't you know, those lawmakers hail from the Upstate.

What is it about the Upstate that drives many of its legislators to take the lead on whipping the weak, beating the beaten, punishing the poor, depriving the destitute? Is it a vestigial tail of the Upstate's old mill village system, wherein mill owners and mill supervisors acted as mayors, big-daddies, judges, juries and executioners, all rolled together? Those mill titans, after all, set their own personal values as mill-village rules and regulations, and those daring to break the rules were cast out on the sidewalk -- literally. Factually. Historically. Demonstrably.

Examples were made of those mill chattel who dared to imagine having rights as American citizens.

A hundred years later, examples are being made of our public employees who dare to draw the benefits available to them. The Greenville News reports it:

Some substitute teachers have collected unemployment benefits for being out during school breaks, such as summer recess, and some legislative pages or aides also are able to collect unemployment, say lawmakers who are moving to stop such benefits.

South Carolina teachers, including substitutes, are forbidden by law from collecting unemployment when they aren’t working during holiday, spring or summer breaks. But the law refers to teachers employed by school systems, and some staffing companies are now employing hundreds of substitute teachers, making the teachers exempt from the unemployment law.

The disclosures come as some legislators are moving to tighten benefits and wring the system of waste. A January 2010 audit found that the agency had spent $171 million over three years paying benefits to those fired for misconduct and illegal acts.

Sen. Kevin Bryant of Anderson, who chairs a subcommittee studying unemployment benefits, said the eligibility of those teachers and legislative workers are examples of holes in the system he wants to tighten.

“We’re trying to put our fingers in the dike,” he said.

Here's a suggestion: Lawmakers can seal up the whole dam altogether by eliminating hundreds of corporate tax loopholes and requiring big, powerful corporate titans to pay taxes in South Carolina just like the moms and pops running corner stores. Sticking a finger in a dike is petty; big, powerful lawmakers ought to be able to do better than this.

Rep. William Sandifer, a Seneca Republican who chairs the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee and authored the bill addressing the substitute teacher situation, said it all boils down to treating substitutes hired by private firms the same way as those hired by public schools.

“It’s a matter of being fair and equitable and living up not only to the letter but also to the spirit of the law,” he said.

Rep. Garry Smith, a Simpsonville Republican who chairs the House Operations and Management Committee, said he authored a budget proviso that passed the House that would prevent pages and legislative aides from collecting unemployment. Legislation addressing seasonal workers that he believes would also ban legislative aides or pages from collecting unemployment also is pending in the Senate, he said.

“We have made it very clear up front that legislative aides are temporary, part-time workers,” he said. “They are only here while we are here in session. I don’t think there was ever any intent by the General Assembly that they would ever be eligible for unemployment.”

The lesson to be learned from this news, readers, is this:

How do you keep powerless people down?

You kick 'em while they're down, and you keep kicking 'em, and keep kicking 'em...

Leventis speaks truth to entrenched power

Sen. Phil Leventis has many fans and many detractors, and that's likely because he's been in office many years.

As he wraps up his last term, it's pleasant to see him still swinging for the fences, as he does in this opinion-editorial, published last week in The State.

Tell it, Senator.

With my legislative tenure coming to an end, I want to share something with my fellow South Carolinians. Our state is not broke, but we are teetering on the verge of moral bankruptcy in our failure to meet the needs of our citizens. That’s why I have introduced the TRAC Recommendation Act (S.1454) that eliminates or reduces many sales-tax exemptions. The nearly $1 billion this act will raise annually would be used to pay for education and local governments, which continue to be shorted due to lack of revenue.

During my 32 years as a legislator, I have been guided by the principle that government should invest in meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens. This principle has been undermined by an ideology claiming that government is the cause of our problems and, accordingly, must be starved.

The real source of our problems is a government unwilling to invest tax dollars in itself and its citizens. When businesses strive to be competitive, they invest in their future. That is what we have to do today in South Carolina to ensure a more prosperous future.

We’re not broke. The problem is that narrow political ideology has trumped statesmanship. The lack of political will to fairly reform our tax code to meet our basic civic contracts for education and infrastructure leads our citizens to believe that “minimally adequate” is the best we can hope for.

In 2010, the Tax Realignment Commission (TRAC) was created to review the state’s tax code and recommend changes “designed to ensure that the state’s tax structure is balanced so that the system is adequate, equitable, and efficient.” The TRAC commissioners and staff did a thorough job of reviewing tax loopholes and inequities, and recommended reforms of sales-tax exemptions that could raise close to $1 billion the first year.

Sadly, ideology trumped common sense, and the Republican-created and -appointed commission’s goal was to use any new revenue to further reduce taxes and increase corporate subsidies, not pay our bills.

Our state’s fixation on being business-friendly is reflected in the Forbes ranking that puts South Carolina fifth in its “business friendly regulatory environment” but 44th in quality of life. Forbes ranks the quality of our labor supply at 22nd, far behind North Carolina (third) and Georgia (fourth). The message this sends is that South Carolina, with its lax regulations and unskilled labor force, is a cheap place to do business — but you might not want to live here.

To put the anti-tax ideology in perspective, consider that of all the industrialized nations, only Turkey and Mexico have a lower individual tax burden than the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The anti-tax National Tax Foundation ranks South Carolina 43rd among the 50 states in taxes as a percentage of income, and dead last in per capita state and local taxes. You begin to wonder why we need to further reduce taxes when we can’t pay our bills.

The House’s budget cuts mandatory funding for education by $665 million and local government funds by $71 million and robs $118 million from the general fund to cover the sales-tax shortfall of Act 388’s property-tax swap. These spending levels are set by law, but education and local government funding obligations are ignored annually by budget provisos because of a presumed lack of revenue and a clear shortage of political courage. These cuts mean larger classes, fewer teachers, police and firefighters and deteriorating infrastructure, all of which combine to make our state less competitive.

The TRAC recommendations on sales taxes would raise nearly $1 billion next year and more in coming years. This is what we need to meet these mandatory spending requirements, and more comprehensive tax reforms would meet and exceed them for years to come.

I’m sponsoring this bill because there is no real legislative debate — and little public understanding — about how we could raise the revenue to pay our bills with fair and broad tax reforms while also improving our quality of life and strengthening our economy.

The critical debate I hope to spark is whether the role of our government is shaped by the special-interest groups who make the majority of campaign contributions, or by the citizens who pay the taxes. I believe that citizens are willing to pay fair and equitable taxes when they get their money’s worth. It’s called democracy, and it’s past time for South Carolinians to reclaim it.

Education deform, straight from the horse's mouth

The fact that the Wall Street newspaper Investors Business Daily has given FreedomWorks president and CEO Matt Kibbe space in its publication to discuss education "reform" is informative.

It reflects that, from the corporate community's perspective, the privatization of public education represents a treasure trove of profits potentially reaching hundreds of billions of dollars.

Somebody, after all, has to educate the children. Without the hassle of a public school system blocking the path, the education bidness -- that's bidness, as in, contracts will be awarded to the highest bidder -- will be free to plunder.

Set aside any illusions you may have that common sense and democracy will save us from this ugly fate. We get back from Columbia what we send to Columbia, and we've sown a crop of anti-public education leadership.

So, study closely, readers: Our corporate masters are instructing us in how things will soon be.

Hush, now. The less you struggle, the easier it will go for you.

Nowhere is the Tea Party's sustained influence clearer than in efforts to promote education reform around the nation.

For the first time in the history of our country, we are seeing a broad-based educational reform effort that is not driven by the unions. Instead, parents and activists are working together on a local level, empowered by the national Tea Party movement, to apply the mechanics of the free market to struggling school systems.

While success has been widespread, efforts made in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania provide some of the clearest examples of the Tea Party in action.

On March 28, the South Carolina House passed H. 4894, allowing tax credits and deductions for donations for privately funded scholarships. A similar bill failed in the House by just one vote in the previous session.

This time around, FreedomWorks joined local activists and Tea Party leaders in their efforts, providing the grass-roots campaign with extra air and ground support needed to pass the bill. After six months, the bill passed by 15 votes — a landslide turnaround — and is now headed for the South Carolina Senate.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal introduced the boldest education reform package ever seen in our nation's history. The legislation overhauls the system using the same model that was successful in post-Katrina New Orleans by providing low-income parents with vouchers that enable them to send their children to the school of their choice.

Jindal's plan also includes tying teacher tenure to good performance, and a system of tax credits that allows businesses to privately sponsor students' education.

On April 4, the Louisiana state Senate voted to pass the voucher expansion bill, HB 976, and the teacher tenure reform bill, HB 974, by margins of 24-15 and 23-16 respectively, sending the legislation to the governor's desk to be signed into law and marking the biggest education reform victory to date.

In Mississippi, Republicans control both state houses for the first time in 136 years. Gov. Phil Bryant, a bold executive leader like Gov. Jindal, has made charter school expansion the centerpiece of his campaign. Charter school legislation SB 2401 recently passed in the Mississippi Senate and failed by a single vote in the state House Education Committee.

But as South Carolina showed, turning a single vote into a bold majority is possible, and well within reach.

In fact, Gov. Bryant has already called for a special session of the legislature in an effort to save the bill, demonstrating a bold example to governors in other states that when education reform gets tough, the true leaders double down while the timid get going.

Heading north, we see the impact that conservative activists have on the 25-year fight for school choice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where efforts to bring student-centered reform to schools have faltered for years.

The Tea Party movement has reinvigorated the cause, working with activists and non-Tea Partyers alike to make more progress over the past two years than was made over the past two decades.

Senate Bill 1 passed the Pennsylvania Senate just before a narrow defeat in the House. This initial bicameral friction hasn't deterred local activists from fighting to free schools from the stranglehold of corrupt union leadership.

Americans are realizing that the lack of competition created by powerful teacher unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association is robbing children of the education they deserve and disenfranchising good teachers. The only solution is increasing competition in the school system. Continuing to line the pockets of union bosses with more and more taxpayer money is a failed and irresponsible approach.

For the most part, conservative parents and activists have won the battles in the state capitol chambers. But we couldn't have done it without the bold commitment to leadership from governors like Bobby Jindal and Phil Bryant.

I can only hope the successes of education reform in Louisiana and Mississippi will start a national trend toward electing and supporting entrepreneurial governors who make education reform a No. 1 priority, not simply cheering from the sidelines.

The Wall Street Journal called 2011 "The Year of School Choice." FreedomWorks, Tea Party activists and our allies in state governments across the nation are not only committed to continuing this trend of success in 2012, but to making the next 100 years the Century of School Choice.

There you have it.

The leader of the corporate-funded education deform movement in America has drawn the lines himself, educators. On one side stands he and the corporate masters who write his checks.

On the other side stand organized educators, which he called out by their names -- the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Between the two stand educators who today work in public schools, but whose jobs may be converted tomorrow, next year, or within a decade, to corporate ownership.

Which side have you chosen?

Because Spartanburg needs a Texas-based charter school

When I first scanned this note, I thought High Point University, way up in North Carolina, was trying to open a charter school in Spartanburg. Why, I thought, would someone in North Carolina want to entangle themselves in running a charter school down here?

I read it more closely and discovered that the people initiating this charter school in Spartanburg aren't from North Carolina, they're from Texas.

So I'll revise my question: Why does someone in Texas want to entangle themselves in running a charter school here?

In the absence of any sensible answer, I must conclude that it's the same as it always is when ideological individuals and organizations seek to dismantle and privatize public education: It has to be about the money.

An application for a new charter school in Spartanburg County was filed Tuesday with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Organizers behind High Point Academy aim to open doors to the new public school on the west side of the county by the fall of 2013. The school first must earn approval from both the state Charter School Advisory Committee (CSAC) and South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD).

High Point Co-Executive Director Lori Manning describes the proposed school as a nonreligious, nonprofit community educational charity. She said the school, backed by Faith in Action Fort Worth (FIAFW), will have a heavy emphasis on the arts, technology and hands-on, kinesthetic learning.

Okeydoke. This begs -- begs, pleads, demands -- a little scrutiny. Let's go slow with this: The proposal is "backed by Faith in Action Fort Worth," but it proposes to be a "nonreligious... community educational charity."

One Google search -- only one, folks, because this isn't difficult -- netted a fine 72-page document produced by the state of Texas in 1996, signed by then-Governor George W. Bush, and festooned liberally with quotes from the good governor, titled "Faith in Action: A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation in Texas."

Oh, you're going to love this part of it, found on page 12:

The Unique Status of Religious Providers: Religious-based caregivers face unique concerns. While Texas benefits from numerous faith-based providers who provide top-notch care, countless other would-be caregivers give in to “preemptive capitulation.” Why? Because they often perceive public agencies as less interested in serving children than in punishing those who don’t succumb to state control. Requirements have crept from health, fire, sanitation, and safety into sensitive areas like personnel, program, funding, etc. Many fear being turned into a quasi-government agency via excessive state regulation, and losing their religious distinctiveness in the bargain.

This view may seem exaggerated to some, but it nonetheless acts to discourage many religious agencies who fear government’s “fatal embrace” and believe they will have to sandpaper down their religious vitality for the pleasure of rendering service.

What's the alternative to sandpapering down one's religious vitality, succumbing to state control, being turned into a quasi-government agency via state regulation and losing your religious distinctiveness?

Opening a charter school, of course. Charters have all the benefits of public school funding, but none of the regulation that comes with being a traditional public school. All you have to do is get approved by the state charter school district -- you don't even have to face scrutiny from the local school board whose funding you'll be taking!

Helpfully, Faith in Action Fort Worth opened a Facebook page in February, where visitors can read such posts for organizers as "We sponsor charter schools and offer women's educational programming. Check out our page as we get things rolling...," "We never know when we may be entertaining angels unaware... God is present everywhere!" and "Our office seems to be a hub of faith-related conversation with many different folks from every walk of life. Everyone has a story... And every story has a lesson to be learned...."

I have nothing against parochial schools. Parochial schools are the best choice for some families, and it's good that church denominations offer that option to devout parents.

What feels a little squirrely about the application for High Point Academy is that it's sponsored by an entity that's clearly church-derived, but to satisfy the South Carolina Charter School District's paper-thin separation from parochial schools, this one claims it will be "nonreligious." Profits from public dollars are just that valuable.

Which makes the next sentence in the Herald-Journal's article somewhat discomfiting:

The school’s motto reads “honor, integrity, service.”

“We want to teach character. To have good citizens,” Manning said. “We want to be the high point of education.”

The submission from High Point Academy is one of 11 applications the CSAC will consider within the next 60 days. If the application is found to be in order, it will go to the sponsoring board — in High Point’s case, the SCPCSD. Local school districts also can act as sponsors for charter schools. Sponsors have 30 days to approve or deny an application.

If approved by the SCPCSD, High Point would become a free, public school open to all students in the state.

Manning said an application for High Point Academy Fort Worth also was filed by FIAFW in Texas. She said the model has the potential to be duplicated in other areas.
Spartanburg Charter School, which opened in 2009, is to date the only charter school in Spartanburg County.

Manning said she hopes High Point will change that and become yet another option for Spartanburg parents.

Manning, a certified teacher and former charter school principal, and the Rev. Katie Stellar, co-executive director, certified teacher and former administrator, are based in Texas. They have about 20 years of combined experience in charter schools.

Here we go again. The co-executive director of a proposed "nonreligious" school is identified as "the Reverend".

Walks like ducks, talks like ducks, swims like ducks, looks like ducks. Clearly, we're not talking about horses and cows, we're talking about ducks, but no one wants to call the duck the duck.

Manning said she wanted to bring their expertise in the charter school field to her hometown. Born in Union and a 1991 graduate of Dorman High School, Manning moved to Texas in 2003 with her husband and has since worked in several capacities with charter schools there.

“I love this city. Always have,” Manning said of Spartanburg. “This is home. It’s coming back to benefit the community I grew up in and love. It’s bringing the knowledge I have home.”

According to High Point’s application filed with the state Department of Education, the school plans to enroll 322 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in its first year, then expand by one grade level each subsequent year through the 12th grade for a total enrollment potential of about 700 students. Leaders also plan to eventually begin a preschool program.

The fine arts focus will provide opportunities for students to participate in piano, dance, theater, art, choir and graphic arts as part of daily electives. Community involvement and a hands-on, applied learning style will further shape the academy’s plan for students.

“The chance for Title 1 students and their families to receive piano, ballet and other fine arts opportunities at no cost to themselves is a tremendous equalizer for students of all races and backgrounds,” the application reads. “High Point is focused on educating and encouraging the leaders of tomorrow.”

Manning said school leaders have a goal of providing secondary students with tablets in lieu of some textbooks and to equip classrooms with the latest technology.

“We’re out there. It’s very cutting edge,” Manning said.

Texas is out there. Spartanburg is nearby.

Speaking of Spartanburg, it's home to seven school districts, each of which has at least one high school. Why not propose to convert at least one high school to a magnet school for arts? Another for sciences? Another for an international baccalaureate program? There's a public school choice bill pending in the Senate that would, for all intents and purposes, allow any student to cross district lines to attend public schools in the next district. Sounds tailor-made to meet the needs of Spartanburg's public schoolchildren.

“Our goal is for all our children to graduate and go on to secondary education.”

The application states that FIAFW has a reserve of $30,000 to contribute to its charter campus in Spartanburg, but additional funding is anticipated from grants and donations.

Once the school is further along in the application process, Manning said organizers — including an 11-member planning committee — will begin searching for a space, somewhere near the intersection of I-85 and I-26.

There's not even a location, but the plan is laid to enroll 322 children next fall, with $30,000 and the promise of grants and donations.

Maybe a church will undertake to sponsor them, too. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Beaufort mourns loss of student leader, musician

This is a beautiful note and worthy of sharing statewide, by Island Packet reporter Erin Moody.

When Craig Washington talked, everyone listened, his brother Charles said.

It was the same when he played his guitar.

One of the first black children to integrate Beaufort County schools and a jazz musician of local and regional renown, he died Tuesday at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston from complications after an allergic reaction. He was 58.

Marshels' Wright-Donaldson Home for Funerals is handling arrangements, which have not been determined. The funeral home also is helping start a memorial fund for Washington, who did not have insurance, his older brother, Rowland Washington, said.

In 1964 -- nearly a decade before full integration -- the brothers were among the blacks to desegregate Beaufort's public schools, Craig at Beaufort Elementary and Rowland at Beaufort High School.

"I remember my mother taking him to Beaufort Elementary School," Charles said. "She walked him right into the class. It was a very quiet moment. It was something to witness."

Their father, Charles, was a prominent local attorney who attended Morehouse College with Martin Luther King Jr. Their mother, Juanita, was a school teacher. They pushed the idea of their children integrating the schools.

Bucky Wall said he was 12 when he met Washington, who had an easy, friendly demeanor. Their friendship showed him black children and white children had much in common.

"He was really a bold guy and impacted a many of us," Wall said. "White guys growing up in the Jim Crow South, we didn't have a lot of exposure to black guys who were our peers. So for many of us, Craig was that first example."

When longtime friend Ian Davis met Washington in 10th grade, they were both engrossed in music and politics. They played in several bands during high school and, along with Wall, produced an alternative newspaper called The Daily Planet. The paper was funded with a Peace Corps grant, Davis said.

"Our job was to stir up the pot and make sure there was a voice for people our age, for the antiwar movement, for the desegregation movement," Wall said.

Washington was student body president and a National Merit student in high school, received a full scholarship to Morehouse, and earned a history degree, according to Davis. At Morehouse, he also practiced his guitar with local musicians and teachers. He later pursued a law degree at the University of South Carolina, but did not finish and returned to Beaufort.

Washington earned a masters in education from Wheelock College and has substituted for Beaufort County Schools for more than a decade, Davis said. Washington, who was divorced twice and had no children, also took care of his mother and an uncle during their final years, Davis said.

His schedule as a substitute left time for him to play gigs around the area solo and with artists including Tradewinds and George Sheck. Music was his passion, and he played every opportunity he could, Davis said.

"He was kind of a big personality," Davis said. "He's extremely friendly. He got along with everybody."

Craig started playing in high school and initially was self-taught, Rowland Washington said. Rowland was at college up north and feeling lonesome, so his mother sent him a guitar. He brought it back home to South Carolina, left it when he returned to school and Craig took it up.

"He's a great musician," Rowland Washington said. "He actually wrote a book, a mathematical book that explains guitar music. He was a heavy guy, a brilliant person."

Zais's plan to discard public schools inches ahead

Let's see: It's a proposal that brings back segregation -- by gender, this time, but the die is cast -- and opens public school athletic programs to students who are not enrolled in those public schools.

In essence, it turns traditional public schools into a neighborhood Boys Club and Girls Club, with teachers and a cafeteria.

So we're one step closer to dismantling public education for good, which brings satisfaction to the state Superintendent of Education, Mick Zais.

The Post & Courier fills in the rest:

Palmetto State charter school supporters are celebrating the passage of a sweeping set of changes they say will benefit their public schools.

South Carolina lawmakers have adopted bill H. 3241 that proponents say would strengthen the state’s public charter schools. Some of the bill’s provisions include:

Allowing higher-education institutions to approve charter schools to open.

Permitting single-gender charter schools to exist.

Letting charter school students participate in extracurricular or athletic activities at their neighborhood school if those aren’t offered at their charter school.

“It’s going to result in students’ excelling academically and truly moving South Carolina forward,” said Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, which has been a driving force behind the legislation.

Charter schools are public schools, but they are not governed by county school boards. They instead have separate boards to make decisions about funding, policy and curriculum.

Yes, because local control is good only when lawmakers say it's good. When local control is bad, lawmakers disallow it.

About 18,000 students are enrolled in 47 charter schools statewide. Charleston has nine brick-and-mortar charter schools, eight of which are open only to county residents. Lowcountry students also can enroll in online charter schools.

The state passed its charter school law in 1996, and lawmakers made significant changes in 2006, such as creating an alternative authorizer, the state Public Charter School District, and allowing virtual charter schools.

The new legislation is the biggest overhaul of the state’s rules on charter schools since then, Carmichael said.

Proponents of the bill have been working for nearly three years on this with Rep. Phil Owens, R-Easley, chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

They looked at the national model for state charter school law and tried to change South Carolina’s to be higher quality. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked the state’s law No. 25 nationally, saying it needed to be adjusted to ensure equitable funding and access to capital money and facilities.

This is tragicomic. Supporters of traditional public schools -- you know, the ones that enroll 700,000 public schoolchildren in South Carolina -- want their schools to be higher quality, too. National rankings credit us for the quality of curriculum and instruction, but they rank us pretty poorly for support of our schools. And there's a 14-year-old lawsuit called Abbeville v South Carolina that asks the courts to order equitable funding for our public schools. But none of these things seems to matter.

If only traditional public schools had an advocate like Rep. Phil Owens working on their behalf for three years, traditional public schools might find themselves the beneficiaries of increased funding and better facilities.

How do we get one of those?

The original bill included a provision that called for local funds to follow students, regardless of where they enrolled, but that was eliminated. Carmichael said that’s an issue that still needs to be addressed and will be worked on going forward.

“That’s something we know long term we need to have,” she said.

Scott Price is attorney for the South Carolina School Boards Association, which serves and represents the interest of traditional school boards that sometimes clash with charter schools.

The association had some concerns with the bill, particularly the issue of the funding following the child. Estimates showed that districts could have taken a $25 million hit were that to happen, he said.

The association also had a problem with allowing charter school students to participate in extracurricular and athletic activities elsewhere, because it could be to the detriment of other children enrolled in neighborhood schools, he said.

Sure. Jimmy, enrolled in the traditional public school, wants to participate on the football team; Jimmy's talented and qualified, and he's enrolled in the school that sponsors the team, for cryin' out loud.

But Bruiser attends the charter school across the highway, and he wants to play football at Jimmy's school because the charter school doesn't have a football team, and Bruiser wants to play for Clemson one day. Coach is feeling substantial pressure to let Bruiser on the team; Bruiser's dad's name is Deacon, and Deacon got Senator to give Coach a call. Now, Bruiser can't add, subtract or do long division, but who cares? Bruiser's big and can run. Result: Jimmy gets to play Fantasy Football on his X-Box at home, while Bruiser gets Locker Number One in the traditional public school's locker room.

If you think this won't happen, you must live outside South Carolina.

The association supported some of the bill’s provisions, such as allowing single-gender schools and ensuring an appropriate timeline for school districts to turn over state and federal funds to charter schools.

In the end, “it’s something we can work with,” he said.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais praised the passage of the new law and thanked lawmakers for it.

“The General Assembly has renewed its commitment to providing parents a choice in the school their children attend,” he said in a statement. “A one-size-fits-all model of education simply doesn’t work for many students. Public charter schools are laboratories of innovation where the interests of students come first.”

And South Carolina's Department of Education is now a laboratory for expensive experimentation where the interests of traditional public schools and their 700,000 enrolled schoolchildren come last.

Ravitch comments on ALEC's reach into education

If you think citizens are in control of our government, think again.

Since the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of many states, there has been an explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights. Even some Democratic governors, seeing the strong rightward drift of our politics, have jumped on the right-wing bandwagon, seeking to remove any protection for academic freedom from public school teachers.

This outburst of anti-public school, anti-teacher legislation is no accident. It is the work of a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Founded in 1973, ALEC is an organization of nearly 2,000 conservative state legislators. Its hallmark is promotion of privatization and corporate interests in every sphere, not only education, but healthcare, the environment, the economy, voting laws, public safety, etc. It drafts model legislation that conservative legislators take back to their states and introduce as their own “reform” ideas. ALEC is the guiding force behind state-level efforts to privatize public education and to turn teachers into at-will employees who may be fired for any reason. The ALEC agenda is today the “reform” agenda for education.

ALEC operated largely in the dark for years, but gained notoriety because of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. It turns out that ALEC crafted the “Stand Your Ground” legislation that empowered George Zimmerman to kill an unarmed teenager with the defense that he (the shooter) felt threatened. When the bright light of publicity was shone on ALEC, a number of corporate sponsors dropped out, including McDonald’s, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Mars, Wendy’s, Intuit, Kaplan, and PepsiCo. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said that it would not halt its current grant to ALEC, but pledged not to provide new funding. ALEC has some 300 corporate sponsors, including Walmart, the Koch Brothers, and AT&T, so there’s still quite a lot of corporate support for its free-market policies. ALEC claimed that it is the victim of a campaign of intimidation.

Groups like Common Cause and have been putting ALEC’s model legislation online and printing the names of its sponsors. They have also published sharp criticism of ALEC’s ideas. This is hardly intimidation. It’s the democratic process at work. A website called has published ALEC’s policy agenda. Common Cause posted the agenda for the meeting of ALEC on May 11 in Charlotte, N.C. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has dropped out of ALEC and also withdrawn from the May 11 conference, where it was originally going to be a presenter.

A recent article in the Newark Star-Ledger showed how closely New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “reform” legislation is modeled on ALEC’s work in education. Wherever you see states expanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of privatization, wherever you see states lowering standards for entry into the teaching profession, wherever you see states opening up new opportunities for profit-making entities, wherever you see the expansion of for-profit online charter schools, you are likely to find legislation that echoes the ALEC model.

ALEC has been leading the privatization movement for nearly 40 years, but the only thing new is the attention it is getting, and the fact that many of its ideas are now being enacted. Just last week, the Michigan House of Representatives expanded the number of cyber charters that may operate in the state, even though the academic results for such online schools are dismal.

Who is on the education task force of ALEC? The members of the task force as of July 2011 are here. Several members represent for-profit online companies, including the co-chair from Connections Academy; many members come from for-profit higher education corporations. There is someone from Jeb Bush’s foundation, as well as right-wing think tank people. There are charter school representatives, as well as Scantron. And the task force includes a long list of state legislators, from Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Quite a lineup. Common Cause has asked why ALEC is considered a “charity” by the Internal Revenue Service and holds tax-exempt status, when it devotes so much time to lobbying for changes in state laws. Common Cause has filed a “whistleblower” complaint with the IRS about ALEC’s status.

The campaign to privatize the schools and to dismantle the teaching profession is in full swing. Where is the leadership to oppose it?

Florence produces state Teacher of the Year

Ellen Meder of the Florence Morning News delivers the winner:

A Pee Dee teacher took the state’s top honor for a South Carolina educator Tuesday night.

Amy McAllister-Skinner won South Carolina’s Teacher of the Year award, which was selected by the S.C. Department of Education and presented by South Carolina Future Minds. She teaches 11th grade English at Johnsonville High School, and with only five years in the classroom under her belt, the Francis Marion University graduate is already making a mark on her students in a big way.

At a large gala in Columbia, Education Superintendent Mick Zais presented a surprised McAllister-Skinner with the award.

“At first I thought he was kidding, but then I figured that was probably not part of the plan,” McAllister-Skinner said with a signature giggle after the awards ceremony.

As part of the award, she’ll get to drive a new BMW for the next year on top of receiving $25,000. She’ll travel around the state advocating for public education, which she said she’s honored to do but that it’s still bittersweet because she’ll deeply miss her students.

When McAllister-Skinner returns to the classroom, she’ll also get a smart technologies package to integrate into her classroom, which particularly suits her because she’s known for integrating technology, like blogging or filmmaking into her lesson plans. She even Tweeted her students as soon as she won the award, with a picture of the keys that read “We got a BMW!”

She said she’ll spend the next year refuting the bad reputation South Carolina education occasionally gets, saying it’s improving all the time. She also wants to highlight and encourage the many innovative ideas Palmetto State teachers are bringing to their classrooms.

She said she was honored and humbled to get the award and said many others are just as deserving. When pressed she said it was her hands-on approach to getting involved in students’ lives as well as learning that likely set her apart.

“I care about my kids as more than just a student in my classroom, and so I’m constantly at ballgames and at all different types of things that touch their lives because I want them to know they’re not just test scores to me, they’re actual people that I want to build lasting relationships with,” McAllister-Skinner said.

By the end of the month McAllister-Skinner will also finish her master’s degree from Coastal Carolina University.

Goodwin named superintendent in Chesterfield

From the Florence Morning News:

The Chesterfield County School Board has selected a new superintendent to take the place of its retiring longtime schools leader.

Harrison Goodwin will take the helm of the 17-school district in July after serving as an assistant superintendent at Spartanburg County District One for more than seven years. He will be taking the place of 40-year district veteran John Williams who will retire this summer after holding its top job since 2004.

At the Wednesday afternoon announcement, Goodwin was met by about 50 district teachers and administrators, who during a stream of congratulations, seemed to welcome him in as an old friend, already joking with one another.

Goodwin, 46, got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Clemson University and a doctorate of education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Under his leadership, the Spartanburg district executed a referendum building project that impacted each of the district’s 13 schools, including building two new high schools and doubling the facilities’ square footage of the district. Goodwin also said he’s very proud of the work he did improving academics, athletics and arts while principal of Chapman High School.

Chesterfield board chairman Chad Vick also said that he was very impressed with Goodwin’s work in raising Chapman to the No. 2 ranked school in the state during his tenure as principal.

“His background and achievements in his Spartanburg district are what make us excited about his vision for Chesterfield,” Vick said.

He said it took the board a long time to whittle down the 30 applications they received with the help of the South Carolina School Boards Association.

Goodwin will move to Chesterfield with his wife, Amy Goodwin, who teaches high school English and journalism, and his daughter, who is a rising high school junior. The couple’s son is a sophomore at Furman University. In his address, Goodwin said the family is looking forward to making the Pee Dee home and that they plan to stay in Chesterfield the rest of their careers.

He said he was drawn to apply in Chesterfield because he thought his experience in the northern part of Spartanburg County prepared him for the district.

“Chesterfield County is really similar to my current school district,” Goodwin said. “While the geography is a whole lot larger, the student makeup is very similar, and it’s the same kind of a setting. It’s mainly a rural setting and that’s what I’m used to working in and have worked in those settings now for almost 20 years.”

Goodwin said his first year will be spent “really getting to know the district” and getting an accurate reading of its financial situation and how it relates to personnel. He said by this time next year, he expects to have a “clearly-defined vision” for the schools, adding that strong administrative and board leadership has already laid a good foundation for the district to move forward and excel.

Born and raised in Camden, Goodwin intended to embark on a career in engineering, but turned to education accidentally.

“Once I made the turn, it immediately became a passion. I like school, I like public schools and I believe in the mission of public schools which is not just to educate children, but to prepare them for life in general,” Goodwin said.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

South Carolina: Where the rubber meets the road

Atlanta, the metropolis, identifies with several well-established brands -- Coca-Cola and CNN among them -- and is capital of the South itself, with Georgia generally known for peaches and peanuts. So Georgia feeds its people two ways, with the fruits of the earth and with intelligence about their world.

North Carolina transitioned from tobacco and marine fisheries to Research Triangle Park, merging entrepreneurial high-tech with the highest standards of public and private higher education, and the fine furniture mecca of the eastern seaboard. No mean feat: North Carolina, we might say, has made itself a leader in equipping its population with the best of interior and exterior living.

And we -- we, here in South Carolina -- we've been so proud to let our tourism industry do the heavy lifting on the coast, and to help BMW build monuments to itself in the Upstate, that we neglected to notice how our own standing in our world has shifted. Tourism gives tourists attractions to visit; BMW gives them fine conveyances by which to get here and to leave.

Let's not quibble over Boeing with its Dreamliner 787 in North Charleston; who in South Carolina expects to ride a Dreamliner 787 from Charleston to Columbia? From Myrtle Beach to Greenville? From Aiken to Rock Hill? Indeed, the example of Boeing's contribution to our social and cultural lives is almost the worst: Through Boeing, we in South Carolina produce fine airplanes for faraway people who will enjoy them, not for ourselves.

Yes, Boeing is almost the worst example, but there's a worse one now.

Might we begin changing the signs at the border now? "Welcome to South Carolina, Where The Rubber Meets the Road"?

South Carolina is fast becoming the leading producer and exporter of tires in the United States, overshadowing once-mighty Ohio as the Tire Capital of America.

The Palmetto State recently overtook Ohio – home of Akron, Goodyear and its iconic blimp – as the nation’s No. 1 tire exporter.

In a year or two, experts predict, the state will achieve an even more impressive milestone – it could roll past Oklahoma as the nation’s No. 1 tire manufacturer.

South Carolina has nine active tire plants and two more on the way – more than any other state.

“Clearly, South Carolina is doing a very good job at demonstrating to our manufacturers it’s a very good place to be,” said Dan Zielinski, senior vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that represents the eight largest tire manufacturers in North American.

So why is South Carolina outpacing other states, even Ohio, for the title of Tire Capital?

“Many say the reason is that South Carolina has a ‘business friendly environment’ – that means it’s a right-to-work state, non-union,” said Bruce Davis, who has covered the tire industry for 33 years at the Akron-based Tire Business magazine. “You can definitely make a case for that. … But there is no one single factor. It’s just the ease of doing business down there, from top to bottom.”

The state’s anti-union stance coupled with low taxes, a ready, comparatively cheap work force, a major port and a central location on the East Coast with substantial interstate highways and rail hubs all are part of the winning formula, experts said.

This is amazing, in that the same words could have been used to describe us during slavery: "a ready, comparatively cheap work force," "a major port and a central location on the East Coast."

In a century -- two centuries, even three centuries -- all that we've changed are the names in charge. And everybody knows it.

“The state is good for getting heavy stuff out and raw materials in,” Davis said.

Those factors allowed South Carolina to nearly triple the number of tires Ohio shipped overseas in 2011, in the process capturing about a third of the nation’s entire export market for tires. The state in 2011 also passed neighboring North Carolina for the No. 2 spot on the tire manufacturing list – for both domestic and foreign markets – and is closing in on No. 1 Oklahoma.

But experts added that the willingness of state, county and municipal governments to work one-on-one with company officials to locate plants, the judicious use of state incentives – others would say generous – along with offers of free land and other local perks are the closers in competitions with other states.

Free land? Free land?

We're giving away free land to corporate masters to locate their factories here, to bring low-paying jobs here? To bring all the air and water pollution that comes with processing raw materials and producing finished vulcanized rubber tires here? Free land, really?

Where exactly is this free land, and why isn't it free to the taxpayers who already live here and pay taxes in South Carolina?

“The state government, county governments and local governments all seem to be mobilizing more resources (than other states),” Davis said. “And it’s not just money.”

I interpret this happytalk to mean that South Carolina's leaders all seem to be selling us and our children cheap to corporate entities who will guarantee life as usual in our frozen-in-place state.

Mark Cook, of the Washington, D.C.,-based Tire Industry Association, agreed that the combination of a business-friendly environment, a strong transportation system, workforce training and incentives – along with personal attention from the mayor’s office and county council chamber to the governor’s mansion and the State House – is paying off.

“That … has all come together to create a perfect storm for South Carolina,” he said. “And those are big factors in its rise in manufacturing overall.”

As an exporter, South Carolina is on a roll across the board:

The state currently holds a 30 percent share of U.S. tire exports.

• Car and light truck/SUV exports were up 52 percent in 2011.

• Overall, the state’s exports increased 21.4 percent in 2011 over 2010, making it the 17th largest exporting state.

• In total, South Carolina shipped some $24.6 billion in goods to 198 countries around the world.

“We are so in the game now,” said Lewis Gossett, chief executive of the S.C. Manufacturing Alliance. “They are all coming for the same reason. They are close to market – whether it’s direct to the customer or to the port. If they need a quality work force, we can get what we need from the technical colleges. These guys can come to South Carolina and get the best service imaginable.”

Did you catch that? "If they need a quality work force, we can get what we need from the technical colleges," the fellow says.

I addressed this point a while back, but it bears repeating:

As South Carolina gradually becomes the vulcanized rubber processor for the nation's automobile industry, the Journal salivates over our willingness to turn our technical colleges into tire-factory training facilities -- and our willingness to fund the training!

What suckers we must look like.

So long as the folks at the top are satisfied, I reckon it'll remain this way.

And those tire export and production numbers will be going up.

All three of the state’s tire companies – Bridgestone, Michelin and now Continental – made major announcements of new plants or expansions in the past year.

• Michelin announced Tuesday it will expand its Earthmover tire plant in Lexington County and build a plant to make the 4-ton tires for heavy construction equipment in Anderson County. The company’s announcement brings its total investment in the state in the past year to about $1 billion and more than 750 new jobs.

• Continental Tire recently broke ground on a $500 million plant in Sumter County that promises 1,600 new jobs by 2021.

• And Bridgestone is investing $1.2 billion to expand its Aiken County operations and hire 850 more workers – the biggest single corporate investment in state history.

For those three projects, the state offered the companies a total of $55 million in incentives, mostly for site preparation. That doesn’t include job-creation tax credits that the companies can apply for later.

“You’re planting a seed and letting it grow,” S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt said in an interview with The State. “Investment is important, but I’m more interested in the jobs than investment.”

For good reason. The state’s jobless rate has been one of the highest in the nation.

However, South Carolina’s employment rate dropped for the seventh month in a row in February, to 9.1 percent. That’s down 2 full percentage points from its Great Recession-high of 11.1 percent in August 2011.

That and the recent announcements led a North Carolina journalist to pen a blog headlined: “When It Comes to Jobs, the Other Carolina is Ahead.”

Manufacturing was credited with much of that improvement, leading the state’s recovery by adding 28,000 jobs over the past year.

“All sorts of manufacturing jobs are coming here,” said USC economist Joey Von Nessen, adding, as a result, "We’re seeing improving economic conditions across the state."

The numbers are good news for Gov. Nikki Haley, whose approval rating was at 34.5 percent, according to a Winthrop Poll released in December. Republicans insist, however, that subsequent internal polls show her tracking much better.

Haley has made job creation the top priority of her administration, and pundits have said the number of big announcements, led by tire manufacturing, has buoyed her reputation at home as a job creator, while her book tour is ingratiating her with the national media.

“I never knew I loved tires so much,” she said at last week’s Michelin announcement.

If only it was so easy to send our present governor to live elsewhere, I think several hundred thousand of us might spring for a quartet of tires to help her on her way.

In an interview with The State last week, Haley credited her fierce opposition to unions – “we have to keep pushing them out” – and the state’s work force and incentives for the successes.

When I see the word "union," I think of hardworking men and women. In this regard, Haley is absolutely correct: By pushing hardworking men and women away from the table, by keeping hardworking men and women away from the American Dream, she guarantees that corporate masters continue to reign supreme in her state.

But that doesn't make us a democracy, does it? It doesn't even make us a republic. It makes us fascist state. I recall that one of the first things dictators like to do upon seizing control is prohibiting the rights of hardworking men and women to organize themselves.

In fact, I think it was 79 years ago today that the new chancellor of Germany banned union organizing in his country.

The world decided he was a dictator.

What sort of tires do you think a dictator would buy for his own ride?

Pure speculation, of course, but I imagine they'd be tires manufactured with minimal environmental regulations and cheap labor in the best possible business climate.

Welcome to South Carolina, Where the Rubber Meets the Road.

State program too successful, will be eliminated

Say a thing often enough and the people will believe it.

That was the credo of What's-His-Name Goebbels, minister of propaganda for the Third Reich, and it seems to have finally reached a critical mass of effectiveness as the operating strategy of lawmakers who have wanted to eliminate the Teachers and Employees Retention Incentive since its inception.

Reporter Adam Beam, writing for The State recently, illustrated the principle in his opening lines:

The TERI program is likely dead.

What started out as an incentive to persuade quality teachers to stay in the classroom has ballooned into a symbol of government waste and greed.

A symbol of waste and greed?

Let's review.

It was designed to keep educators in the classroom, to head off a teacher shortage. It accomplished that goal.

Indeed, in accomplishing that goal, it also improved the state's average teacher salary, because our lawmakers like to include every remotely applicable penny in that equation rather than focus on improving the base contract salary alone.

So it was overtly and covertly successful at achieving two legislative goals. I'd hardly call that a symbol of waste and greed.

If we want to find symbols of waste and greed, we might reflect upon an effort made back in 2003-04 to move $700,000 through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to rebuild a stadium at the Citadel, so that ESPN might be disposed to sign a contract to broadcast a "Palmetto Bowl" live from that location. This, after the Citadel had already raised $5 million in private funds to accomplish its goal.

Nonetheless, Beam continues,

Since its inception in 2000, the TERI program has been the target of at least a dozen bills to kill it and one lawsuit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

But now, with the state retirement system’s deficit at $14 billion and climbing, lawmakers are rallying to end the program. A bill has already passed the House that would eliminate TERI for new hires. And four of the six senators on a subcommittee crafting retirement legislation — two Democrats and two Republicans — say they want to close the TERI program.

“In retrospect, I think we made a little bit of a mistake,” when lawmakers approved TERI, said Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, a member of the Senate retirement subcommittee.

But supporters say the TERI program makes the state money and gives people a reason to work in state government when they could have a higher salary in the private sector.

“If the goal here is to make a political statement and be punitive to employees then the goal is accomplished,” said Carlton Washington, executive director of the South Carolina State Employee Association. “If the goal is to take care of our most sacred resources, state employees, then I wouldn’t think that eliminating the TERI plan would be the way to go.”

TERI — which stands for Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive — allows state workers to retire but continue working for up to five years. They earn their full salary and their full retirement benefits at the same time. Their benefits are held in trust by the state, earning interest. When the five years are up, the state worker gets his or her benefits in a lump sum, minus the interest.

TERI started in 2000, when the state had a teacher shortage of 6,000. Lawmakers envisioned TERI as a way to keep quality teachers in the classroom for an extra five years.

But critics say that’s not what happened. Instead of keeping employees longer, it encouraged them to retire earlier than they would have. In the first year of TERI’s existence, state agencies were flooded with retirement requests and had to pay out an unexpected $16 million in unused sick and vacation days.

“Anything that gives people an incentive to draw retirement earlier puts stress on the retirement system,” Leventis said.

The program has worked for retaining teachers, according to Beth Phibbs, director of governmental affairs for the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. But because teachers are on the same system as state and local government workers, it has to be made available to everyone — which only compounds the problem.

TERI had financial problems at the start. Once employees entered the TERI program, they kept their salaries but stopped contributing to the retirement system. Having more people taking money from the system without contributing to the system contributed to the system’s growing deficit.

In 2005, lawmakers fixed that by requiring TERI employees to contribute to the system. Now, when employees enters the TERI program, they pay 6.5 percent of their salaries into the system without earning more service credit. They also earn interest on their retirement benefit checks, which stays with the state. (Last year, the state kept $28 million in interest from TERI accounts).

That last note would suggest that TERI has been a money-maker for the state, not a drain on resources.

“The retirement system has two sources of revenue for which the employee gets nothing, and so that is a net addition to the retirement system,” said Rep. B.R. Skelton, a former Clemson economics professor who is a strong supporter of the TERI program.

But the interest and the contribution are not enough to cancel out the retirement benefit the system has to pay the employee, said David Avant, managing legal counsel for the state retirement system.

“It mitigates the cost of TERI, but it doesn’t undo it,” he said.

Ah, the penny-pinchers weigh in and conclude that it is, indeed, a money-maker, but it's not worth paying retirees any greater benefits to keep the program in place. If retirees are winning a little, it's not worth the effort.

It’s unclear how much money TERI, on its own, has cost the system. An analysis by the South Carolina Retirement System found that the TERI program, along with reducing the retirement eligibility to 28 years from 30 years, added $2 billion to the deficit.

Still, most critics complain not that TERI costs too much, but that it is unfair. They view someone being able to earn a retirement benefit while continuing to work as “double dipping” with tax dollars — something most private sector workers cannot do.

I just think sometimes these folks don’t understand what it is like in the private marketplace right now,” said Don Weaver, president of the South Carolina Association of Taxpayers. “These folks still have a very, very good pension where a lot of folks don’t even have a pension today.”

Even Sen. Darrell Jackson, who as a Richland County Democrat represents a lot of state workers and often defends their benefits, said TERI has to go. He said the biggest complaint he hears from state workers is when someone who is not in TERI loses a job to budget cuts while an employee who is in TERI keeps his or her job.

“It has ballooned into something no one imagined it would become,” Jackson said. “And, quite honestly, I think that it has probably been somewhat abused.”

A bill approved by the House would close the TERI program for anyone hired after July 1, 2012. But some state senators say that is not good enough. Leventis, the Democratic senator on the retirement subcommittee, wants to phase out the TERI program over eight or 10 years.

The last time lawmakers changed the TERI program, in 2005, it led to a class action lawsuit. The state lost and had to pay $31.8 million to 14,000 working retirees, plus interest and attorneys’ fees.

But Dick Harpootlian, who sued the state on behalf of those employees, said lawmakers would have “a strong argument” for closing the program for current workers.

“It depends on how they do it,” he said. “With this Legislature, given a chance to screw it up they will.”

Is Ware Shoals cutting educators' pay?

A note was published last week in the Greenwood Index-Journal about a proposal to cut educators' salaries to help balance the local district's budget, but I haven't heard whether the issue has been resolved, or how.

This was the original note, by reporter Erin Owens:

Ware Shoals School District Board of Trustees discussed possible ways in which the district can cut its budget for the 2012-13 school year during its meeting Monday.

Though the state's budget has not yet been set, school districts throughout the state could potentially see a decrease in funding should the current state budget pass. To make up for the losses, Ware Shoals discussed raising millage and reducing pay for retirees in the district, though no official decisions were made Monday.

"This is just an exercise in frustration right now, because we have such little information and it's my understanding that we won't get any more information until June," Superintendent Fay Sprouse said.

Sprouse said the district is eligible to make a 3.2 percent increase in millage in the county, which would affect mainly businesses and rental properties. Sprouse said a 3.2 percent millage increase would not generate a significant amount of money, but could help the district. Board members will consider the millage increase and discuss it further next month.

Cutting pay for retired district employees was another option discussed during the meeting. Sprouse said the district has six full-time retiree employees and two part-time, who are currently paid at the 11-year experience level on the pay scale. About three years ago, the retired employees' salary was decreased from the highest experience level to the mid-experience level. Decreasing retiree pay further to the zero experience level next year would save about $81,000 for the district, and would be a 20 to 25 percent salary cut for the employees.

"We value our retirees for their commitment to the district and for their expertise," Sprouse said. "But we also have to make sure we take care of those who are not retirees and that we are able to maintain our budget. We want them to continue working for us for a fair wage, but we have to weigh it in light of all the other things we've had to endure."

In other words, retirees who are collecting their meager retirement benefits while continuing to teach, in order to make ends meet, should learn to eat less to cut back on their grocery bills, turn up the thermostat to consume less electricity during the coming summer months, and make fewer trips to the doctor's office to save on gas.

Ruling in Abbeville v South Carolina is long overdue

I've mentioned the Abbeville v South Carolina case several times before; it's the suit brought on behalf of several poor, rural school districts to force lawmakers to address inequity in school funding in our state, and it's the litigation at the heart of Bud Ferillo's documentary, "Corridor of Shame."

In the April 20 edition of the Statehouse Report, Andy Brack took up the topic and concluded that it's well past time for the state Supreme Court to have issued a ruling in this matter.

It takes four years for most high school students to graduate from high school. Most college students traditionally also graduate in four years.

But four years apparently isn’t enough time for the state Supreme Court to come to a conclusion about a festering school funding case first filed by poor South Carolina school districts in 1993. Yes, 1993. A student in first grade back then should, by now, be out of college and could even have a master’s degree. This thing has been going on that long.

In June 2008 -- a year before then Gov. Mark Sanford changed the definition of what it meant to “hike the Appalachian Trail” -- the S.C. Supreme Court heard oral arguments appealing a 2007 ruling on the Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina case. Since then, an opinion has been pending. “We have no idea of knowing” when a decision will be rendered, a court spokesman said this week.

Really? After four years? The high court needs to get off of its robes and make a decision soon, particularly since state legislators now are gearing up to talk about (guess what?) revising the formula that funds public schools. Wouldn’t it be nice for legislators to have the court’s guidance on the constitutionality of issues related to public school funding before politically manipulating the formula so they don’t have to redo everything if the court rules for the poor school districts?

At issue is the case brought by poor, rural school districts like Abbeville County through the “Corridor of Shame” districts from Dillon to Ridgeland along Interstate 95. In essence, they complained 19 years ago that students in poor districts received a constitutionally-inappropriate and inadequate public education due to a variety of factors, most of which centered on funding.

By 1999, the state Supreme Court made a ruling in an appeal that set a standard for “minimum adequate education.” Before remanding the original case to the lower court to be considered again, it defined the standard “to include providing students adequate and safe facilities in which they have the opportunity to acquire: 1) the ability to read, write and speak the English language, and the knowledge of mathematics and physical science; 2) a fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and 3) academic and vocational skills.”

After a flurry of motions and filings, the circuit court then held 102 days of trial, starting in July 2003 and ending in December 2004. It heard 102 witnesses in person or by deposition, which generated a 23,100-page transcript. Some 4,400 documents were received in evidence. A year later, state Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper essentially ruled that the state provided a minimally-adequate education to students in the poor districts. But Cooper, now retired, required the state to fund early childhood intervention programs to satisfy constitutional requirements under the “minimally adequate” standard.

Cooper’s ruling didn’t make the plaintiffs or state happy. In 2006, both filed motions to get the court to change its 2006 order. Those motions were denied in July 2007. The following month, that decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court. In turn, it heard oral arguments on June 25, 2008 -- almost 46 months ago. Since then: not a word.

If the court’s not ready to rule yet, it might consider sending a signal that it still finds the case important by asking for further arguments, inviting additions to the record or accepting friendly opinions from interested parties.

But to do nothing is not in the interest of the public, especially in a state where legislators this year underfunded public education’s base student cost by about $700 million. This case is too important for today’s students to have to wait another generation for a ruling.