Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Abbeville cuts 23 educators; local editor diagnoses the disease

Erin Owens of the Index Journal reports today that Abbeville school trustees voted last night to cut 23 educator positions in that county, thanks to cuts in federal and local funding for public schools -- and that's before they know the level of budget cuts from the state.

For the 2011-12 school year, the school district will receive less money at the federal, state and local levels. In federal stimulus funds, $1 million will be eliminated, and local funds will be reduced by $300,000. Additional losses will come at the state level, but that amount is still unknown.

During a closed-door session at the meeting, Superintendent Ivan Randolph presented a list of seven recommendations to the board on how to cut the budget for the upcoming school year, which the board unanimously approved.

Included in the cuts for the 2011-12 school year in Abbeville County School District are:
- Combine the positions of Power School clerk and school secretary.
- Reduce athletic supplements by 10 percent.
- Reduce all custodial staff days by 20 days.
- Reduce contract days for FFA teachers by 20 days, from 240 to 220.
- Reduce the energy education supplement for two employees.
- Reduce one Spanish position, 1.5 physical education positions, .5 art position, one guidance position, one early childhood position, two elementary positions, one math position, one English position, one science position, two special education positions, four secretarial positions, six custodial positions and one teaching assistant position.

Of the positions being eliminated, Randolph said several are employees who will be retiring at the end of the school year.

During the next several months, the board will have to deal with the additional cuts to the state budget. Although the amount is currently unknown, Randolph said it is anticipated to be about 15 percent in additional cuts. Also, the passing of the state's charter school bill, which is expected to be discussed this week, could further affect the school district's budget.

The Index-Journal's associate editor, Scott Bryan, puts the trustees' decision in its political context. In essence, his formula reads: This is South Carolina; the majority of South Carolina's lawmakers do not principly support public education; ergo South Carolina's children and public schools suffer. For Bryan, the problem's cause and the problem's effect is the same: politics.

"Neglect a dog? Starve an animal? You face criminal charges, time in jail and hefty fines," he writes. "Neglect a child? Starve a mind? That's political policy in South Carolina."

LAST AUGUST, Anne Parks, D-District 12, was meeting with McCormick County Council members with Shane Massey, a state senator.
When talking about last year's budget, which Parks voted against, she gave a simple, reasonable response for her inability to support the budget.
"We didn't fund (education) like we should have funded it, and that's why I didn't vote for the budget," Parks said. "I think our children are worth more than that."
It's hard to argue with facts.
Take Greenwood District 50, for example. Because of a lack of funding from the state, more than 220 positions have been eliminated from the school district since 2008. Because of federal stimulus money, another 75 or so positions were saved this year. But there is no federal stimulus money next school year, so those 75 positions will likely disappear.
The state budget will be about a billion dollars less than the previous year, which means less money for everybody. In fact, during District 50 superintendent Darrell Johnson's State of the District address Feb. 11, he revealed the district projects more than 300 job losses between 2009 and 2012.
On top of that, the legislature is debating H3241, a charter school bill that would force Abbeville County School District to relinquish $437,048 to Calhoun Falls Charter School and online charter schools. District 50 would lose $88,390.

Essentially what's happening: we have a lot of 8-year-olds getting by on scraps.

There's a bit more to Bryan's column, and you should catch it in its entirety.

Next verse, same as the first: Class sizes go up, funding goes down

Georgetown Times reporter Clayton Stairs says school officials intend to pack more children into their public school classrooms next year, due to "desperate straits" in funding. The district is facing a budget deficit that could total $4 million.

Savings from adding an average of one student per classroom would double or triple the amount saved from closing Plantersville and Browns Ferry elementary schools, officials said.

That would allow the district to have less teachers for the same number of students.

These and other ideas for budget cuts were on a list of suggestions released by the school district last week to get input from the community about possible budget cuts.
The school district is working to balance its budget for the next school year with a $3.5 to $4 million shortfall.
Meanwhile, some local residents say cuts should be made at the district office before adding students to classes or closing schools.

‘Equal or double’ other cuts

Randy Dozier, superintendent of local schools, said a class size increase will “equal or double all other cuts.”

He said eliminating middle school athletics would save the district about $60,000, but that amount could be saved by having one less teacher.

He added that the local school district has made a point to not increase class size in the past, but it may be one of the best options for budget cuts.

“If we do that, we are taking some steps backward,” Dozier said. “We are in desperate straits. I never thought we would get to this point.”

Do lawmakers want the state's future to be prosperous?

In a thoughtful column published today by the media consortium, Steven Smith II asks a pertinent question: Do we want South Carolina to be prosperous in its future?

MARION --Cuts, cuts, and more cuts. That has been the story of many states’ educational budgets across the nation. With the deficits of state governments soaring, it seems that states now want to cut education in an effort to reign in government spending.

Here in South Carolina, the state legislature is currently considering a wide range of spending cuts to education. Our state’s Education Oversight Committee recently issued rankings for 54 items that make up our state’s $500 million educational tab. The nonpartisan group ranked the more important items higher and the less important items lower.

According to the group’s report, teacher salaries and benefits ranked highest, followed by reading programs, services for disabled children, technology, and classroom materials. Lower ranked items included National Board Certification stipends, teacher training, supplemental funds for award-winning schools, and administrative assistance to schools with low test scores.

With South Carolina facing a $700 million deficit, something will have to be done if the state wants to continue to balance the budget. But is cutting education really the answer?

Not if you want the state to be prosperous in its future. South Carolina’s spending on higher education continues to rank second to being last among Southern states tracked by the Southern Regional Education Board. Our state’s K-12 education is also lagging behind in spending and performance. The state budget was drastically cut last year, and would have resulted in the cutting of thousands of SC teachers had it not been for federal stimulus money making up the difference. With the stimulus money nearly gone, cutting the education budget at this time would be detrimental to both teachers and students. The quality of education in SC schools would get even worse for students than it is now.

As for the teachers, many who were lucky enough to retain their jobs last year may find themselves in unemployment lines for the upcoming year. I agree with the findings of the EOC, in light of our need to retain all of our teachers and their salaries. As President Obama put it last week, “In today's economy, the quality of a nation's education is one of the biggest predictors of a nation's success. It is what will determine whether the American dream survives."

Educators encouraged to organize by Jefferson Davis, 1863

It boggles the mind to imagine Mississippian Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, as an organizer of teachers. But a document housed in the Rare Book Collection of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill demonstrates precisely this.

Perhaps it is not so farfetched; on April 10, 1863, Davis advised Southerners on such domestic matters as agriculture, urging them in a speech to plant corn, peas, and beans instead of cotton and tobacco.

If other matters were not pressing upon his schedule two weeks later -- preparations for the battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, for example -- he would have attended in person an event occurring with his blessing in Columbia, South Carolina:


Messrs. C. A. Wiley, J. O. Campbell, and W. J. Palmer:

I have the honor to acknowledge your invitation to attend a meeting to be held in Columbia, S. C., to deliberate upon the best method of supplying text books for schools and colleges, and promoting the progress of education in the Confederate States. The object commands my fullest sympathy, and has, for many years, attracted my earnest consideration.

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of primary books in the promotion of character and the development of mind. Our form of Government is only adapted to a virtuous and intelligent people, and there can be more imperative duty of the generation which is passing away, than that of providing for the moral, intellectual and religious culture of those who are to succeed them. As a general proposition, it may, I think, be safely asserted, that all true greatness rests upon virtue, and that religion is, in a people, the source and support of virtue. The first impressions on the youthful mind are to its subsequent current of thought, what the springs are to the river they form; and I rejoice to know that the task of preserving these educational springs in purity, has been devolved on men so well qualified to secure the desired result. I have only to regret my inability to meet you, because it deprives me of the pleasure your Association would have given.

With my best wishes, I am, very respectfully,
Your fellow citizen,


The Association in question was the Teachers of the Confederate States, a consortium of education associations from the various Confederate states. As host state, South Carolina was best-represented with a delegation of 35, a who's-who of education leaders of the day:

R. W. Gibbes, M.D., Columbia.
J. B. Patrick, S.C. Military Academy, Columbia.
J. P. Thomas, Sup't Arsenal Academy, Columbia.
Joseph Le Conte, Prof. Chem. & Geol. S.C. Col., Columbia.
R. O. Sams, State Military Academy, Columbia.
A. J. Nems, State Military Academy, Columbia.
M. LaBorde, Prof. S.C. College, Columbia.
Rev. H. B. Cunningham, D.D., Columbia.
Henry M. Mood, Pres. Columbia Fem. Col., Columbia.
T. E. Wannamaker, Prof. Columbia Fem. Col., Columbia.
J. E. B. Evans, M.D., Principal Boys' School, Columbia.
F. W. Pape, Prin. Columbia Male School, Columbia.
W. J. Ligen, Prin. Pendleton Male Acad. Columbia.
F. A. Sawyer, Prin. Girls' High and Normal School. Charleston.
Wm. Curtis, Prin. Limestone Springs Fem. High School
E. H. Pooser, Prin. Palmetto Acad. Richland District, Gadsden.
T. J. Wells, Walterboro' Academy.
C. H. Leverett, Prin. Cheraw School.
Rev. Chas. E. Leverett, Columbia.
T. S. Goodwin, M.D., Columbia.
Wm. Reynolds, M.D., Representing Prin'ls Columbia Female Academy.
C. P. Pelham, Columbia.
W. J. Duffie, Newberry.
Wm. K. Blake, Pres. Spartanburg Fem. Col.
Rev. T. L. Holmes, Prof. Laurensville Fem. Col.
P. C. Johnston, Reidville Schools, Reidville.
Rev. R. R. Vann, Prof. Latin, Fairfield Fem. Ins.
S. A. Weber, Male Academy, Unionville.
W. P. Jacobs, Tutor, Columbia.
Jas. H. Carlisle, Wofford College, Spartanb'g.
D. P. Gregg, Columbia.
B. H. Robertson, Winnsboro.
James Woodrow, Theological Seminary, Columbia.
Jno. B. Adjer, Theological Seminary, Columbia.
Wm. Johnson, Columbia.

This all-male delegation met the delegates from other states in Columbia's City Hall on April 28, 1863, with a full agenda to address, including the adoption of Confederate-oriented textbooks for use in teaching Confederate boys and girls. The party included 16 delegates from North Carolina, 10 from Georgia, three each from Virginia and Alabama, and one from Louisiana.

Two of South Carolina's delegates, Dr. Gibbes and Lieutenant Patrick, were chosen to serve as conference chair and secretary, respectively. The call for the conference, read by Gibbes, was stated in a resolution adopted by the State Educational Association of North Carolina six months earlier:

Resolved, That this Association recommend a general convention of the teachers of the Confederate States, to be held at ----on----1863, to take into consideration the best means for supplying the necessary text-books for schools and colleges, and for uniting their efforts for the advancement of education in the Confederacy; and that the Executive Committee of the Association be directed to correspond with teachers in the various States on the subject.

To that resolution, adopted in North Carolina in October 1862, was added two subsequent provisions: One, that the Chair would "invite all gentlemen interested in the objects of the Convention, to unite with us," and two, that ladies would be invited to attend the conference sessions.

Now, gathered together in Columbia, the collected delegations from the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana took up a momentous first resolution:

On motion of Mr. Sterling, of N.C., it was--
Resolved, unanimously, That the teachers and friends of education here assembled, do organize themselves into a permanent Educational Association for the Confederate States of America.

And on its heels came a resolution to designate a committee, including one member from each state represented, to draft an association constitution and by-laws. This first "Constitution Committee" included the following leaders:

REV. C. H. WILEY,. . . . .North Carolina.
W. T. DAVIS,. . . . .Virginia.
PROF. J. L REYNOLDS,. . . . .South Carolina.
J. F. CANN,. . . . .Georgia.
S. T. PEACE,. . . . .Alabama.
W. H. STRATTON,. . . . .Louisiana.

Immediately, this committee "withdrew for consultation" and business continued, with another committee designated "to take into consideration the general interests of education in the Confederate States, and the supply of our schools with text-books, and to report by resolution or otherwise."

With two committees now deliberating, the Chair read the letter from President Davis, expressing his regrettable absence but his satisfaction that Confederate education was well in hand, and a letter from North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. Vance equally regretted his inability to attend but expressed heartfelt pleasure at the work being undertaken:

EXECUTIVE DEP'TM'T, Raleigh, April 22, 1863.

Mr. W. J. Palmer, Principal N. C. Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind:

DEAR SIR: The circular of the Executive Committee of the Educational Association of N. C., of which you are a member, has been received, informing me of the design to hold a general convention of the Teachers of the South, for the purpose of considering the best means of supplying text books for schools and colleges, and for promoting the cause of education generally, at Columbia, S. C., on the 28th instant, and inviting me to attend.

While expressing my regret at being unable to accept your invitation, I beg leave to say that it affords me very great pleasure to see that the desolation of war does not prevent the good men of the country from looking after this great and important matter. This is certainly the time to inaugurate the system of supplying our schools with our own books, and of impressing the minds of our children with the effusions of Southern genius.

May God bless and prosper your efforts in a cause so patriotic and so greatly to be commended by every true Southern heart.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Indeed, every true Southern heart has reason to rejoice when educators are encouraged to organize themselves and take charge of their work, and to affiliate formally and permanently with the organized educators of other states, equally diligent and empowered. Had the Confederacy prevailed in its course, America might have found Davis and Vance leading a vanguard of organized educators across the nation.

As it happened, however, members of the newly-appointed Constitution Committee had anticipated their charge and brought a draft document with them for consideration. So, with letters read and laid aside, the Committee returned and offered its draft for consideration. It read:


ARTICLE 1. This Association shall be called "The Educational Association of the Confederate States of America," and its object shall be, to promote the educational interest of the country.

ART. 2. The officers of the Association shall consist of a President, one Vice-President from each State, a Recording and a Corresponding Secretary, and a Treasurer; and these officers shall be elected by the Association, for one year or until their successors are chosen.

ART. 3. It shall be the duty of the President of the Association to preside at its meetings, and to discharge such other duties as shall appertain to his office; and he shall, at the expiration of his term deliver an address before the Association.

ART. 4. It shall be the duty of the Vice-Presidents to preside, in the order they are named, in the absence of the President.

ART. 5. The Recording Secretary shall keep a permanent record of its proceedings, and list of its members, and shall perform such other duties as are incident to his office.

ART. 6. The Corresponding Secretary shall assist the Recording Secretary in keeping the minutes of the Association, and shall conduct such correspondence as the body or its President may direct.

ART. 7. The Treasurer shall receive and keep the funds of the Association, subject to its orders, and make no disbursements except on the order of the President, countersigned by the Recording Secretary; and he shall, at the end of his term, make a report of all moneys received and paid out by him, and deliver to his successor the funds in his hands.

ART. 8. Any male citizen of the Confederate States, who may be engaged in the profession of teaching, or who has, in any way, identified himself with the educational interests of the country, may become a member of this Association, in the following manner, to wit: He must be nominated at an annual meeting by a member of this body, elected by a majority of the votes then present, and sign this Constitution.

ART. 9. Each member of this Association shall annually pay to its Treasurer such a sum as shall be determined by the By-Laws.

ART. 10. The Association shall hold an annual meeting at such times and places as it may designate.

ART. 11. This Constitution may be amended at any annual meeting by a vote of two-thirds of the members present; and a quorum to do business, shall consist of any ten members representing not less than three States.

Article by article, motions were taken and adopted; thus was born the second* "national" Education Association in America, embraced by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, blessed by North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance and supported by the superintendents, administrators and principals of dozens of schools across the South.

All that was left was to designate a committee to recommend permanent officers, accomplished by the chair posthaste. As this was sufficient work for one evening, the conference adjourned and reconvened the following morning.

When the delegates reconvened on the morning of April 29, the last-appointed committee returned its nominations for permanent officers, all of which were elected unanimously by acclamation. The first president of the EASCA would be the Reverend J.L. Reynolds of South Carolina, who, "having, in appropriate terms, expressed to the Association his full appreciation of the honor conferred, assumed the duties of the office to which he was elected."

Reynolds was a solid choice for the presidency. A native of Charleston, he was born in 1812 and graduated "with the first honor" at Charleston College, going then to to Newton Theological Seminary and accepting a first pastorate in Columbia. After a term as president of Georgetown College in Kentucky, and pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, Reynolds returned to Columbia to teach Latin at South Carolina College "in the palmiest days of that renowned institution." The experience of being the first president of a national Education Association served Reynolds well in retrospect, as he went on to become president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and ended his career as professor of Latin at Furman University.

Reynolds' co-officers would be

Vice Presidents.
W. T. DAVIS, . . . . .Virginia.
REV. C. H. WILEY, . . . . .N. Carolina.
DR. R. W. GIBBES, . . . . .S. Carolina.
J. STODDARD,. . . . .Georgia.
S. T. PEACE,. . . . .Alabama.
W. H. STRATTON, Louisiana.
T. SUMNER STEVENS, Georgia--Recording Secretary.
W. J. PALMER, North Carolina--Corresponding Secretary.
LIEUT. J. B. PATRICK, South Carolina--Treasurer.

The main business for the remainder of the conference concerned textbooks for Confederate schoolchildren -- where to find textbook options, which ones to adopt and how to arrange for their distribution and use in schools. It was agreed that the Constitution of the Confederate States of America should be published and used as a textbook. The "remainder of the morning was consumed by the Delegates from Virginia and N. Carolina, in giving to the Association much interesting information." An afternoon session gave delegates from South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama a chance to bring news of their own. All in all, the day was not unlike a modern meeting of educators. By suppertime, delegates were ready to conclude the day's business, but they returned for an evening session at 8 p.m.

Therein, Delegate Wiley of North Carolina offered a handful of useful resolutions, including:

Resolved, That the authorities of the several States be earnestly requested by this Association to give their attention to the importance of educating for teachers in our schools, worthy young men, who, by the misfortunes of war, are rendered unfit for manual labor.

Resolved, That the Delegates from those States which have no system of public education, be requested to urge upon the Executives and Legislatures of their respective States, the organization of such a system, and the appointment of a Superintendent of Common Schools.

Then Delegate Wells of South Carolina offered a visionary proposal:

Resolved, That to strengthen the influence of this Association, and further the cause of education, we do earnestly recommend the organization of a Teacher's Association in each State of the Confederacy.

Each of these were adopted, and after some additional thoughtful discussion, the Committee on General Interests of Education returned with its report:

The Educational Association of the Confederate States of America, assembled at Columbia, S. C., being ardently attached to the rights, interests and honor of each State and of the Confederate States, and profoundly sympathizing with the country in its righteous efforts to maintain its independence, would remind all the teachers and friends of education in the Confederacy, that the war in which we are engaged requires for its successful prosecution active and competent laborers in all those departments which, under God, constitute the wealth and strength of a nation; not the least important of which is the school-room.

Whatever our circumstances may be, there will be children at home who can be usefully employed only in study; and while the casualties of war are carrying off the present adult generation, which, under any circumstances, would not be long on the stage of action, it is of the utmost importance that those who are to succeed them should be able to appreciate the greatness of the trusts committed to their hands. And, while this is so, it should also be remembered that it is in the school-room that the mind of the State is prepared for the development of its material and moral resources, and for the skillful application of them to its support and defence. This Association, animated with unconquerable faith in the resources of the Confederate States, cannot doubt the ability of the people to maintain their intellectual, industrial, commercial and political independence, if each class of the community, with an humble trust in God, and a sincere desire to walk in the ways of that righteousness which exalteth a nation, will diligently devote itself to those means which can be employed with most effect for such a result.

On the morning of April 30, delegates returned to the business of textbooks, their publishers and which ones to recommend, and delegates from each state offered their suggestions.

Before concluding, two more committees were appointed: one "to prepare for publication in the newspapers, a summary of our proceedings, and to invite the co-operation of the teachers and friends of education in the Confederacy, in the action of this Association," and the other "to prepare an address to the teachers and friends of education throughout the Confederacy, which shall express the views of this Association, in reference to the educational interests of the country." This last committee would have only three members, two of which were South Carolinians.

In its last items of business, the convention received invitations to hold its next meeting -- to be called its "first annual meeting" -- in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta was chosen to host the meeting, to be held the first Wednesday of September, 1863. Following "a brief and appropriate valedictory address by the President," the Association adjourned.

[*The first national education association had already existed for five years, founded in 1857 as the National Teachers Association. In 1870, that organization underwent a name change and became the National Education Association.]

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ravitch: Without 'organized force,' children and schools will suffer

Noted educator researcher Diane Ravitch has weighed in on the protests dominating the news from Wisconsin this week, and she's cast her lot firmly with teachers.

It's time to ask: Why should teachers have unions? I am not a member of a union, and I have never belonged to a union, but here is what I see. From the individual teacher's point of view, it is valuable to have an organization to turn to when you feel you have been treated unfairly, one that will supply you with assistance, even a lawyer, one that advocates for improvement in your standard of living. From society's point of view, it is valuable to have unions to fight for funding for public education and for smaller class sizes and for adequate compensation for teachers. I recently visited Arizona, a right-to-work state, and parents there complained to me about classes of 30 for children in 1st and 2nd grades, and even larger numbers for older students; they complained that the starting salary for teachers was only $26,000 and that it is hard to find strong college graduates to enter teaching when wages are so low.

I have often heard union critics complain that contracts are too long, too detailed, too prescriptive. I have noticed that unions don't write their own contracts. There are always two sides that negotiate a contract and sign it. If an administration is so weak that it signs a contract that is bad for kids, bad for the district's finances, or bad for education, then shame on them.

The fight in Wisconsin now is whether public-sector unions should have any power to bargain at all. The fight is not restricted to Wisconsin; it is taking place in many other states, including New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Illinois. The battle has already been lost in other states.

If there is no organized force to advocate for public education in the state capitols of this nation, our children and our schools will suffer. That's the bottom line. And that's why I stand with the teachers of Wisconsin. I know you do, too.


When was the last time that teachers packed the halls of the Capitol in Columbia as they're packing the Capitol in Madison?

2011: The year that South Carolina lawmakers broke faith with teachers, and the band played on

When teachers enter their career in the classroom, they face innumerable unknowns. Will they last 30 years? Will those years be happy and productive? Will their retirement fund be solvent when they reach the end? Will their stock of copy paper last the semester, and will hand sanitizer kill all the viruses that children bring to school?

One thing that teachers have counted on for years -- generations, in most states -- is a salary schedule. Though teacher salaries aren't spectacular by any stretch (aren't even adequate in many, many, many places), it reassures teachers to be able to look up the salary schedule and plan ahead, based on what their base contract salary will be next year, and the year after, and so on. It's this certainty that has pushed many teachers to invest in their careers, earning higher degrees and additional credentials, in order to earn pay more commensurate to their professional skills.

God knows, despite the low salaries, it's a blessing to be able to refer to the salary schedule from time to time. Over the years, lawmakers have made great promises to educators: Accept piteous salaries in exchange for greater state investment in your state health insurance, and in your retirement plan. That sleight-of-hand went the way of smoke during the past couple of decades, as legislators chiseled away at the state health plan and forced educators to pay more for less of it.

Our electeds perceive that they gain little from affording the state's education professionals the little security that comes in having the salary schedule printed in black-and-white. As noted last week, they're now considered a plan to eliminate that schedule and replace it with a yet-undefined "performance pay" model. Or, as others call it, "pay-for-test-scores," or "pay-for-good-luck."

The principled response to such a foul offer is, No. Until lawmakers fully fund the needs of traditional public schools -- and do so for twelve consecutive years, the length of one child's journey through the system -- and THEN weigh and measure the progress, then there's no reason to talk about alternatives. Until that happens, any alternative on the table is a dodge, a way around honoring prior commitments.

Now there's a new twist. Finding themselves faced with an iceberg, dead-ahead, one group of teachers asked last week to be allowed to help organize the deck chairs and take up instruments in the Titanic band.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The amount South Carolina teachers get paid, and what their salaries are based on is the subject of a new bill making its way through the legislature.

Teachers would help create a pay-for-performance system that would determine their salaries under the bill approved Thursday by the House budget-writing committee.

The provision would direct the state Education Department to form a committee of teachers to come up with a compensation plan by Dec. 1.

The initial bill left the plan to the agency.

Superintendent Mick Zais opposes the change. His spokesman said Zais was elected to do a job and is concerned about being tied to a plan he doesn't like. Zais pledged to allow teachers and principals to make suggestions to his plan.

Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association pushed for the amendment. She said it's vital that teachers be part of such a drastic change to their livelihoods.

Here's hoping others among South Carolina's educators will take to the wheel-house instead and pull hard to starboard.

Half of South Carolina's children live in poverty; lawmakers consider more budget cuts

It is accurate to call news "news" if it isn't new, and if everyone already knew it?

From last Friday's Charleston Post & Courier came "news" that shouldn't surprise anyone living in South Carolina. Perhaps it was meant to be news to readers from outside the state, though it's doubtful that any non-Carolinians would be shocked to see it printed again.

The news? A report from a quasi-legislative committee has concluded that nearly half of South Carolina's children live in poverty. And the legislature (a) offers no solutions to the problem and (b) continues to ponder which of a myriad cuts it will inflict to programs and services for the state's poorest citizens.

The newspaper's report calls to mind the old puzzler: What do you do when you find you've dug yourself into a hole? The answer seems to depend on whether your hole is dug into South Carolina's red clay or the soil of some other state. Elsewhere, you might throw down the shovel and call for help to climb out; in South Carolina, we double-down on digging.

An excerpt:

Nearly half of the state's 1 million residents under 18 "lived in some officially measured degree of poverty" last year, according to a report issued Thursday. About half of all children qualified for Medicaid benefits in any given month, and more than one-third received subsidized school meals.

The 35-page report from the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children is meant to provide lawmakers with information they can use to make policy and funding decisions, its authors said.

The report offers no concrete recommendations, only an acknowledgement of current economic challenges and the general admonition that political decisions should strike a balance between the need for budget reductions and the obligations to the state's children.

The Courier says it's been nearly two decades since this Committee issued its last report. Why? It was "unfunded" for most of that time and revived just three years ago -- despite its unique mission:

The bi-partisan joint committee, which consists of six appointed legislators, three appointed citizens and six state agency officials, is the only political body that considers all aspects of child welfare in South Carolina.

Child welfare is clearly not a priority to the modern legislature. Of the various programs and services designed to help poor children, which do you expect to be protected by lawmakers this year?

Lawmakers are grappling with a $700 million budget gap and have said that no state program, including services to children, is immune to cuts.

None of them. Which means that unless South Carolinians choose to make changes themselves, we'll see the same report issued in another 20 years, and another 20 years, and another...

Here's a snapshot of the Committee's finding on public health and impoverished children:

Many children in the state go without health insurance, are inadequately immunized against disease and suffer from obesity and chronic illness.

--More than 136,000 children in South Carolina had no health insurance in 2009.

--Approximately 20 percent of the state's children are not getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended dosage of vaccinations by age 2.

--More than one-third of high school students are obese or overweight.

--25 percent of low-income children, ages 2-5, are obese or overweight.

--Research shows obese teens tend to stay obese, gaining an average of 80 more pounds as they become adults, and leading to chronic health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and cancer.

--Thousands of children suffer from asthma, and 5,680 were hospitalized for it in 2008.

--Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes were diagnosed in about 2,000 children in 2007.

On the topic of child welfare, the Committee reported:

According to the law, the state must intervene when parents or legal guardians abuse or neglect their children.

--About 19,000 cases of possible abuse or neglect were referred to the Department of Social Services in 2010, and 6,705 cases were found to be legitimate, affecting more than 12,000 children.

--8,800 children were neglected or threatened by neglect; 2,900 were threatened by physical abuse; 1,500 were injured by physical abuse.

--Victims include young witnesses of siblings being abused.

--About half of abuse victims are 5 years old or younger.

--Financial strain, substance abuse and mental disorders contribute to higher levels of abuse and neglect.

And how many of South Carolina's children live in families where there is financial strain?

Nearly 200,000 children in the state, about 20 percent, are officially recognized as "poor".

--463,000 children in the state live in families considered "low-income," according to government measures.

--1 in 5 children living in poverty have emotional or behavioral problems.

--328,000 public school students received subsidized meals in 2008-2009.

--Nearly half of all children in public schools received assistance to obtain proper nutrition.

--The state Medicaid program, administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, ensures that the poor and disabled receive basic health care, but the agency faces a budget shortfall of $228 million.

--Two-thirds of Medicaid recipients are part of working families but do not earn enough to afford insurance.

Does our state do enough to prioritize and address the welfare of its poorest children? Or their parents?

Does it matter?

Joseph E. Brown, Georgia's secessionist governor, championed public education, 1880

History records abundantly the exertions of liberal reformers in the cause of building public education, especially in the closed societies of the South where schooling was viewed as the private obligation of parents, throughout the South. But the attempts by conservative politicians, because of their rarity, are sometimes more marvelous. This is precisely the case of a speech made by Georgia Senator Joseph E. Brown from the well of the U.S. Senate on December 15, 1880.

Brown was no carpetbagger or scalawag: A native of Pickens County, South Carolina, Brown's family moved to Union County, Georgia, in his youth, though he returned to attend Calhoun Academy in Anderson, South Carolina. Thereafter, he taught school in rural Georgia while involving himself in local politics. An ardent secessionist, Brown was elected governor of Georgia just before the Civil War and remained in that office through the war. Throughout his career in public service, he championed the development of free public education, and he reiterated his rationale while debating a bill to dispose of certain federal lands to benefit public schools for all children.

Following is an abridgement of that speech:

Mr. President, I have listened with a great deal of pleasure to the able and eloquent argument made by the honorable senator from Vermont [Mr. Morrill] in favor of the passage of the bill now before the Senate. We live under a republican form of government. The stability of that government depends, in my opinion, upon the virtue and intelligence of the people of the United States. ...It becomes, therefore, important that we should educate the mass of the American people if we expect to perpetuate American institutions.

The intellect of the people of this country is not confined to the sons of the aristocracy or the wealthy classes. George Washington was a surveyor; Benjamin Franklin was a printer; Roger Sherman, I believe, was a shoemaker; Andrew Jackson was a penniless orphan; Henry Clay was a mill boy; Daniel Webster was the son of poor parentage; Andrew Johnson was a tailor, who when married could neither read nor write; his wife taught him to read; he was self-educated and self-made; General Grant was a tanner; the great commoner, Alexander H. Stephens, was a poor orphan boy; Abraham Lincoln split rails and labored in his youth with his hands for his living; and I believe the President-elect, General Garfield, was born of poor parentage.

Then it is true that in this country as well as every other the intellect of the country in not confined to the sons of the wealthier or the ruling classes; and I maintain that the State has a right to have the intellect of the whole country developed out of the mass of the wealth of the country and brought into action for the protection of society and the building up and development of the country. How can this be done? Only by the education of the children of all classes of society. I have no doubt many a man has lived in the United States, of intellect as grand as those I have mentioned, who has died unknown to fame. Why so? Because no circumstance has led to the first stage of development that has made the person himself conscious of his own powers. That bright boy has never been sent to school; he has never been taught even the first rudiments of a common education; he has been confined to labor in the backwoods, in the factory, in the shop, or in the mines, and while he may have been regarded there as one of the most intellectual of his comrades, there has been no development that showed his powers to either him or them, or that gave the country the benefit of those powers.

Educate the whole mass of the people and you have the benefit of all this power. Let me illustrate. The honorable senator who has just taken his seat was too modest to refer to it because he is from New England, but we find a noted example there. When the Puritans, as we term them, landed in this country and located themselves on the bleak shores of New England, they commenced building up society by the organization of churches and the building of houses of worship, and they located the schoolhouse near the church. They established a system of common schools that was intended to embrace the whole population and to give every child an opportunity to have a common education. They commenced early and laid deep the foundations of their universities and colleges. The result has been that they have endowed and built up colleges of a very high order, where immense numbers of the young men of this country have been educated.

Go out through the mighty West and over the Territories to the Pacific Ocean, and what do you find? Where was the member of Congress or the senator in this hall educated? Usually at a New England college. Where was the minister of religion, or the village doctor, or the lawyer, or the local politician educated? Most of them in the New England colleges. Thus they carried New England ideas with them all through the West, which have controlled in the organization of society and the legislation of States, and in that way New England may be said to have dictated laws to the continent. Her ideas, taught to the youths that have gone out West and scattered all over this broad land, have been carried along and ingrafted upon society, and we are obliged to admit that they have done a great deal in controlling the destinies of the country.

It was not only so with New England; but there is another very noted example worthy of our attention. I refer to the Kingdom of Prussia. At the time Napoleon the First led his armies over Europe like an avalanche, and swept down kingdoms and empires before him, Prussia was a third-class power, devastated by the ravages of war. At the end of the great struggle, in making preparations to build up society, she early took into account the importance of educating the whole mass of her people. She endowed universities liberally; she established a system of public schools throughout the entire kingdom, and she not only by her legislation from time to time made provision for the education of all her children, but she made their education compulsory. She permits no father who has been the means of bringing offspring into society to say, "I will not permit my child to be educated; I will not send him to school." She says: "The State has an interest in it and it shall be done." The law requires the parent to send the son, and then the State gives him the rudiments of an education. He must have it; the good of society requires it; the law compels it.

How did it work? From a third-rate power Prussia rose rapidly to a second-rate power; and within the last few years the test of strength came between the Kingdom of Prussia and the Empire set up by Napoleon, when his successor, a wise statesman, was upon the throne. What was the result? That little third-rate kingdom, overrun by Napoleon the First, had risen to be a power in Europe, and when the struggle came Prussia swept over France, dethroned the monarch, the successor to Napoleon the First, and dictated terms to France upon her own soil. Why was it so? It may be said she had abler generals; that her armies were better handled. There was another reason; she had a better educated people. Her whole people were educated. Every man felt an individuality in what he was doing, and then she had all the best intellects of the kingdom educated to fill the different places where it was necessary to have ability. A government that educates all her brightest intellect has greatly the advantage of one that educates only that portion of her intellect that is born in the wealthier and higher classes of society.

Under the Prussian system, as I understand it, if a boy shows great brightness and is intellectually adapted with proper training to the position of a professor of chemistry, he is carried through the university, and he is fully developed and educated in that department of science. If another shows great talent for the military, he is passed through the military department; and if he has a master mind, he is made a master of the military profession; and so in each department. Therefore, when Prussia called upon her sons to rally under her banner, she had her ablest intellect cultivated in their respective positions, and they were ready to step forward and fill each place with a first-class man. This was not so with the French. They have colleges and universities of the highest order; they have education of the highest order; but they have not the whole mass educated as they are in Prussia. There may have been some of the ablest generals by nature and some of the most useful men that the army could have required in other positions who were in the ranks, whose power was not known because they had not been developed by education, and therefore the state lost the benefit of their mental powers. I say the state has the right to the aid of all the mental power of its people, and it can have it in no other way than by the education of all the masses of the people of the state. And this should be done by the aid, as far as necessary, of all the wealth of the state.

Take our own country, today. In the backwoods, among the mountains, peradventure away out among the Rocky Mountains, or down in the wiregrass of the South, there is many a bright-eyed boy, who has intellect of the highest order, in one of the humblest cottages or cabins of the land. And there, if neglected, he may stay and work his way through life with no opportunity to show the power he possesses. But send him to the common school and let the rough be knocked off that diamond until it begins to glitter, and you cannot then stop him. He will go forward, and the more the diamond is polished the brighter it will sparkle, till it shines out in all its brilliant splendor and magnificence. But this could not have been done without education enough to show what was in the boy. Therefore, without the education of the mass of the people and of the whole people, you cannot have the benefit of the whole intellect of the country brought to bear in the building up of society and the development of the resources and power of the state.

But there is another good reason, Mr. President, why those who come from my section of the Union should advocate this measure. The honorable senator from Vermont [Mr. Morrill] referred to the fact of the large illiteracy of the people of the United States. He did not carry it out and show to what States or sections this illiteracy applies most. I regret to say it is from my own section. There are several reasons why it is so. Under our old system of society we looked more to the education of the ruling class than we did to the education of the whole mass. In other words, we did not, as they did in New England, furnish the money to establish systems of public schools where all the children could be educated, but we educated our children through the means of private schools, where only the wealthier classes and those who were well-to-do could send their children. Consequently there was a larger number of illiterate persons in our society than there was in the society of New England or any other State that had a properly endowed public school system.

But this was not all. We had there a large slave population, amounting in round numbers to four millions at the time they were emancipated. Under our system as long as we kept and used them as slaves it was regarded unsafe to educate them. Therefore their education was neglected, and it was a very hazardous experiment when they were made citizens without education.

The honorable senator from Rhode Island [General Burnside] referred to the condition of the Scotch people at a time when they were not educated, and told us how degraded they were and how they were looked down upon, and to the elevation that they afterward attained when by a common-school system they were educated up to a high point.

I have given you a reason why there is such a vast preponderance of illiteracy now in our section. It is not only due to the fact that we did not have the common-school systems in the Southern States prior to emancipation, but that the four millions of freedmen were a added to our population as citizens there, without education. Then we must appeal to you not only now but in future to be liberal toward the South in aiding in the education of these people. I know there have been complaints that they may have been cheated in some instances at the ballot-box. Ignorance may be cheated anywhere. Doubtless, Senators, you have seen the more ignorant class cheated in your own States. If you would guard against this effectually in the future, educate them; teach them to know their rights and, knowing them, they will maintain them.

It is necessary to educate them, furthermore, for the reason that they do not now understand, as ignorance does not anywhere understand, the theory and form and spirit of our Government. Education will enable them to understand it. We must give it to them. We must teach them what is the nature of the government, what are the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and now that we all agree that it is to be perpetual in future, we must teach them to love the Union and to be ready to stand by and defend it, and I believe the senators from New England will agree with me when I say we must teach them also that the Union is a union of States, and that we must not destroy the States. When the States are destroyed there is no longer the Union of our fathers. As the Union is to be indissoluble, the States which form the Union, and without which it cannot be maintained, must forever remain indestructible, and they must continue in the exercise of all the reserved rights which they now possess under the Constitution as it stands, with the amendments adopted by the States.

Therefore, it is necessary to teach all citizens, white and colored, and to teach their children, the importance of maintaining republican institutions in the purity in which they originally came from the hands of the framers of our Constitution, and to maintain the ballot-box in its purity also. I announced in my own State to the electors who were to vote on my case the next day, that I was for a free ballot and a fair count. ... Let it be so everywhere. Let us educate our people, white and colored, up to the point where they understand the proper use of the ballot; then let it be free to all, and let the ballots be fairly counted when deposited. ... Whenever the whole mass of the people are educated there is no danger in doing this. Until they are educated there will be impositions practiced upon ignorance in every section of this country, and probably in every State in the Union.

I know some objection has been raised on the constitutional question. It has been said that the States alone can take charge of this matter; that the Federal Government has nothing to do with the education of the people. Well, under the strictest rules of construction of the old State-rights school prior to the war possibly that was so; but we do not live under the Constitution that we lived under then. The amendments made at the termination of the struggle have very greatly enlarged the powers of this government.

But I believe there is another provision of the Constitution that may have some bearing here. "The United States shall guaranty to every State in this Union a republican form of government" is the language of the Constitution. If I be right in the position I took in the commencement of this argument, that this government cannot be perpetuated as a republic without the education of the whole mass of the people, then to appropriate money for the education of the masses of the people would be a better mode of guarantying a republican form of government than to undertake to make a guaranty by the use of the army and the sword.

I do not think really there is any constitutional difficulty in the way of making this disposition of the public lands lor this very important purpose, and it seems to me there is no other possible disposition that can be made of this fund in the future which can result in anything like the benefit to the Government and the people of the United States that must result from the appropriation of it to the purposes of education.

We will in this way establish new guaranties for the perpetuation of the Union, the maintenance of the rights of the States, and the future peace and prosperity of the whole country. Let us give to the whole mass of our people, in all sections of the Union, the benefit of at least a common-school education; and let us provide, as in the Prussian system, for a higher development of the brightest intellects that may be found in the public schools by such legislation and appropriations as will enable them to prosecute their studies till they have made themselves masters of the particular art or calling for which nature seems to have fitted them.

It may be objected that it costs large sums of money to educate our whole people. I admit it; but it is an investment that pays back a heavy rate of interest. Who is most likely to make money, an educated enlightened people, or an ignorant, degraded people? Contrast the financial condition of New England with that of Mexico, and tell me which accumulates fastest, an educated, scientific people, or a people who do not enjoy the benefits of education or science. The surest way to make money is to invest large sums of money in the education of our people and the development of the whole intellect of the country.

Then let us lay the foundation of a system which shall be improved and built up, until the whole mass of the American people have the benefits that will soon result from it. This is the surest way to maintain and perpetuate our republican system of government, to develop the vast resources of our country, to encourage and protect the accumulation of wealth and to transmit the blessings of good government to remotest generations.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Researcher Diane Ravitch's view on "pay for test scores"

Education researcher Diane Ravitch made waves last year when she reversed course after a generation-long critique of public education and published "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education." But Ravitch's change of heart, she writes in her book, was a gradual evolution that gained speed as data from the standards-and-accountability movement demonstrated that "No Child Left Behind" didn't deliver on its promises.

For some time, Ravitch and her colleague Deborah Meier have published their ongoing dialogues on education issues at a weblog, "Bridging Differences." In one such dialogue in 2009, Ravitch took on the subject of "performance pay," and she took a decidedly negative view of the proposal. In a column titled "What's Wrong with Merit Pay," Ravitch wrote:

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to pay teachers extra for raising student test scores:

* First, it will create an incentive for teachers to teach only what is on the tests of reading and math. This will narrow the curriculum to only the subjects tested.
* Second, it will encourage not only teaching to the test, but gaming the system (by such mechanisms as excluding low-performing students) and outright cheating.
* Third, it ignores a wealth of studies that show that student test scores are subject to statistical errors, measurement errors, and random errors, and that the “noise” in these scores is multiplied when used to make high-stakes personnel decisions.
* Fourth, it ignores the fact that most teachers in a school are not eligible for “merit” bonuses, only those who teach reading and math and only those for whom scores can be obtained in a previous year.
* It ignores the fact that many factors play a role in student test scores, including student ability, student motivation, family support (or lack thereof), the weather, distractions on testing day, etc.
* It ignores the fact that tests must be given at the beginning and the end of the year, not mid-year as is now the practice in many states. Otherwise, which teacher gets "credit," and a bonus for score gains, the one who taught the student in the spring of the previous year or the one who taught her in the fall?

I believe that our readers are right when they predict that merit pay of the stupidest kind is coming. I predict that it will do nothing to improve our schools. A few weeks ago, the conservative Manhattan Institute released a study showing that merit pay had no impact on test scores in 200 schools in New York City that are trying it. In fact, scores went down in larger schools that offered bonuses. This little experiment in schoolwide bonuses is costing taxpayers $20 million a year.

Now it is possible that scores may go up in later years; this is only the first year, after all. But what is most interesting is the subdued release of this study. When the Manhattan Institute releases a study, it often holds a press conference to announce the results. This study, however, had no fanfare; its study was quietly posted on MI's Web site; no press conference, no press release. Somehow I suspect that the study would have been released with bells and whistles if the scores had flown upward.

Here is my prediction: Merit pay of the kind I have described will not make education better, even if scores go up next year or the year after. Instead, it will make education worse, not only because some of the "gains" will be based on cheating and gaming the system, but because they will be obtained by scanting attention to history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, foreign languages, and all the other studies that are needed to develop smarter individuals, better citizens, and people who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. Nor will it identify better teachers; instead, it will reward those who use their time for low-level test preparation.

Is it possible to have an education system that mis-educates students while raising their test scores? Yes, I think it is. We may soon prove it.

Orangeburg educator questions "merit pay"

Donna Holman, a teacher at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School in Orangeburg, is also a columnist at the Orangeburg Times & Democrat, where she once worked as education reporter. Earlier this week, Holman published a column -- "More expectations, less funding" -- to ask simple, basic questions about the notion of a "merit pay" model in South Carolina.

Help me understand merit pay for teachers. I work at the high school level now and in 20 years, I have had the privilege of teaching students from 5 to 45 years old. I appreciate the fact that lawmakers see the critical need to do something about our educational system.

Be realistic. If you are going to base a teacher's salary on how well students perform, there has to be fairness - a system of checks and balances for the teacher and the student. If you are going to judge one teacher for his ability to impart knowledge of his subject area, you have to give that teacher a student with the requisite skills and a desire to better himself.

All too often, teenagers are entering high school reading years below grade level. There are more than a few seniors who take the exit exam several times before scoring the minimum required for a diploma.

Everything in our power should be done to more than "adequately" prepare our young people for success. They need resources, family support, healthy meals and excellent instructors.

I believe that most South Carolinians see the value of education, and we all realize that something needs to be done to better serve our students. But most people just worry and complain. Lawmakers keep cutting funding and keep raising the bar of expectations on those employed in public education.

Guess what, folks? It doesn't matter how much everyone keeps talking and how great policies sound. If we all - as parents, community members, neighbors and friends - don't step up, take a genuine interest in helping a child and then hold that child accountable for his own reading ability and learning, not much is going to change.

This Valentine's Day, show a child you love him by buying him a book. I challenge you to show him, whether he is 1 or 21, that you value learning and know that reading is fundamental to succeeding.

It really makes no difference who we blame or how much we complain. The only thing that matters is each child's reality.

It is important to help children internalize the fact that as the student, it is their responsibility to learn. A teacher can teach, explain, offer practice of skills and re-teach all day, but until a child understands that he alone must grasp the material, that effort is futile.

Are you doing your part to help young people understand that how far they go in life depends, to a large degree, on how much they invest in getting there?

Friday, February 18, 2011

South Carolina's lawmakers look for the next dodge

South Carolina lawmakers are, among other things, consistent.

At moments of stress and strain in fiscal matters, the state's elected class has sought the dodge -- any available route around directly addressing and resolving the issue at hand. True, the legislature has its moments of solemn statesmanship, but these are rare as red diamonds, once-in-a-lifetime occasions; examples of the Assembly's baser instincts are abundant as grains of sand on the Grand Strand.

The Free Schools Act of 1811 is an excellent example of both the statesmanship and the dodge: Rep. Stephen Elliott pushed for the state's first public school law and won its passage, but a generation of conflicted legislatures starved it of funding until it died, amid calls for reform, committees, reviews, analyses, et cetera. It wasn't replaced until the Constitution of 1868 was adopted -- yet the schools were undernourished again for a generation -- until the Constitution was replaced again at the turn of the century, and the schools were pumped full of promises once more, only to have them broken. For a review of South Carolina's record in the twentieth century, consult Briggs v. Elliott and "Corridor of Shame."

If we were to take history as our instructor, we would not be surprised, then, to find that South Carolina waited until 1977 -- three hundred and seven years into its existence -- to pass a law detailing a formula by which it would direct state funding into local school districts for the annual support of public schools.

Nor would we be surprised to learn that in the 34 years since the adoption of the Education Finance Act of 1977, it's been fully funded less than a third of those years. Here again, after the burst of inspired statesmanship came the dodge.

Lawmakers must have chafed at being reminded year upon year that they failed, and failed again, and failed again, to satisfy their moral obligations to South Carolina's children. It must be so because they're presently returning to type, searching for the route around the issue of school funding, rather than addressing and resolving it directly.

On that point, by the way: What's the way to address and resolve the problems of public education directly? It might begin with asking what South Carolina wants its public schools to accomplish.

Does the state wants its public schools to meet the intellectual needs of its students -- to meet those students wherever they are, from wherever they've come, with whatever baggage they bring and whatever circumstances they suffer -- and to deliver such instructional services to those children as are necessary to help them, all of them, grow into bright, creative, curious, productive, critical thinkers and analysts, capable of reading with purpose, writing with clarity, speaking with confidence, collaborating and competing with the best minds of our global neighbors and partners, offering leadership for the next era of our state's growth and development?

If that IS what South Carolina wants from its public schools, then the next logical step is to examine what the state is investing -- not investing in our public schools alone, but investing in the lives of the children who haven't yet arrived at school -- and confirming that the investment is sufficient to bring those children to the schoolhouse door ready to learn.

It's a tough question to ask; tougher to answer, if the answer is to be taken as serious and meaningful. To date -- through more than three centuries -- the answers haven't been serious or meaningful. The school finance plan adopted in 1977 was acknowledged to be outdated before its ink was dry, and leaders have sought only to patch its holes since then.

Funding was insufficient, so the Education Improvement Act was passed in 1984 to raise another penny of sales tax for schools. More than a few lawmakers since then have used the penny as a shield -- if schools need more funds, educators should help grow the economy to raise more sales taxes.

The technological age dawning everywhere else demanded attention from South Carolina's leaders, so they adopted a standards-and-accountability plan in 1998, the Education Accountability Act. Standardized testing would prove whether children from diverse backgrounds, of divergent socio-economic status, from families with vastly different educational backgrounds, are all learning the same way, at the same pace, on grade level. It has proved they haven't because they don't.

We find ourselves, armed with the newest conclusions to the same old issues, at yet another moment of reckoning. Given one more opportunity to be statesmen, it looks like South Carolina's leaders are seeking the dodge. The catalyst, this time, is a fiscal crisis. Poor decisions have led to the state government's inability to meet and serve its essential obligations and institutions.

Care to ponder the poor decisions? They all come from the same source: When times are bad, lawmakers bray that this is no time to raise revenues, as doing so will cripple our ability to bounce back; when times are good, lawmakers crow that this is no time to raise revenues, as doing so will stunt a period of growth and lead to recession. Both arguments carry the intellectual heft of spun sugar.

Whether economic times are good or bad, South Carolina's leaders prove themselves exceedingly creative at reducing revenue streams -- widening tax loopholes for corporate allies, decrying the size and inefficiency of government even as the number of state workers shrinks and state programs wither, and seizing every chance to scale back its commitments to citizens least able to suffer the loss.

The present fiscal crisis could have been avoided with wise planning, and plenty of voices predicted this present morass in the budget debates of many recent years. Sadly, those voices are a minority, and interested corporate contributors outnumber them.

How will the present fiscal crisis be addressed? Consult history. Identify the citizens with the least political power and trace the state dollars that provide services to them, then watch those line items take cuts in this year's budget process. Identify the groups of people whose work is supported by state sponsorship and trace the state dollars that fund them, then watch those line items "reformed."

Need an example? HB 3002 proposes to eliminate the state's salary schedule for certified educators and replace it with a pay-for-performance model that the state's new education superintendent wants to develop. Interestingly, Superintendent Mick Zais says he isn't driven by committee, which is dandy -- it doesn't take a committee to recommend that pay-for-performance is foolish, as it invites the worst kinds of human behavior to corrupt the most important responsibility of state government.

No education professional or group of educators needs to demean themselves with parlor conversations about the matter: Those who propose to compensate instructors based primarily on the standardized test scores of pupils know little about children, less about education, and least yet about effective public policy. Yet this is the dodge adopted by state leaders to avoid addressing and resolving the issue facing us today.

For more than three centuries, South Carolina has failed the vast majority of her citizens, distracted them with pomp and scandal from the matters most affecting them, propping and protecting instead the thin band of economic and social elites who could buy the government they've wanted. Once in a great while, statesmen surface and point the state in a better direction but just as often, and for much longer, our lesser lights chafe at the greater challenge and look for the dodge instead.

Behold, this is the government we elect.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Educators respond to the Zais plan

It took no time at all for teachers to respond to Superintendent Mick Zais's plan to improve schools other than traditional public schools in South Carolina. Jackie Hicks, president of The South Carolina Education Association, issued a statement to the media that's posted at The SCEA's website. Hicks finds Zais squarely in the middle of "a political movement whose real agenda is to perpetuate our system of inequality and unstable funding of our public schools."

They repeat several big lies over and over: Our students are far behind those in other countries. Our schools are failing. Bad teachers are responsible. Teacher unions protect those bad teachers and hence are responsible for failing schools. They hold up Finland, which has dramatically improved its national student achievement scores, as an example of how a nation can come from behind.

While these “reformers” are sincere in their beliefs, their claims are wrong. Their unshakable faith in continuing to espouse ideas which have been tried and tried have failed over and over again.

Her reference to Finland is enlightening and calls to mind the recent columns of education researcher Diane Ravitch: "Is Finland the Answer?" and "What Finland's Example Proves." But Hicks also delivers a history lesson on merit-pay schemes attempted in South Carolina during her time in the classroom, and their outcomes:

Let’s look at the evidence regarding the “pay for performance” plans espoused by the Superintendent of Education. South Carolina has tried merit pay plans over the years. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, districts could choose to provide merit pay on a school-wide or an individual basis. These plans were abandoned, however, because they were too expensive and did not improve standardized test scores. Their costs escalated and became more than districts and the state wanted to pay.

About three years ago, the Richland One School District made another try at pay for performance. The program cost the district three times the projected cost and it was cancelled after only one year. It also lowered teacher and staff morale and pitted teachers and staff against administrators and board.

Research shows that paying teachers a bonus based on student performance does not improve student achievement. A pay-for-performance study released by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation followed nearly 300 Nashville Public Schools fifth- through eighth-grade teachers from 2007 to 2009. The result? No overall effect on student achievement across the entire treatment group.

The executive director of Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives, said, “We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no.”

That study is not alone. This last June, the Mathematica Policy Research study found that a merit pay pilot program for teachers that began in Chicago schools in 2006 had no effect on student achievement. According to the study, merit pay did not improve student standardized test scores or teacher retention – two main goals of the program paid for with a $27.5 million federal grant.

In short, students who don’t have to deal with grinding poverty are not behind those in other countries; they are at the front of pack. Our schools are not failing; indeed, they are the only place many children feel safe and vital. Bad teachers are not responsible for poor test scores; poverty is. And South Carolina has not one teachers union.

Union? It's funny that reformers in South Carolina and elsewhere cite the Finland example as often as they do, because, and Hicks and Ravitch point out in their texts, Finland is nearly 100 percent unionized.

Hicks writes:

Compare Finland’s results with South Carolina’s. Finland has uniformly high academic scores. It also has a childhood poverty rate of just 3-4 percent and its teachers are almost 100 percent unionized. South Carolina has low scores in most academic areas, a childhood poverty rate of 20 percent and zero percent of its teachers are unionized. Indeed, teachers do not have the right to unionize. For the South Carolina students who live well below the poverty line, their problem is neither their teacher nor their public school. It’s their poverty. The current tax and funding policies of SC perpetuate the problem.

Here is where a little time spent in the classroom might give a little seasoning to future superintendents of education. Hicks reminds us all of the strategies proven to work when the mission is to strengthen student achievement in traditional public schools:

There is, however, a way to improve educational outcomes in South Carolina: Invest in public schools and charge them with carrying out programs that go well beyond the school day, such as high quality, universal pre-school and kindergarten, after-school programs, summer programs and tutoring that have been proven to mitigate the impact of poverty on children’s lives and to improve their learning. Reform our antiquated tax system, which favors special interests over our children, and the prosperity of SC. Increase the beginning teachers salary so that the best and brightest of our students become and remain teachers.

Let us institute real reform and not the same old tired ideas we have tried in the past. The future of our children and our State are too important to continue to play the same old blame and finger pointing games as has been the case in the past.

The Zais Plan to improve public schools: Support vouchers & charters instead

South Carolina's newest superintendent of education laid out his plan to improve public schools to members of the Senate Finance Committee this week, and it strangely included none of the strategies proven to improve public schools.

Zais is well-educated himself, with training at West Point and advanced degrees earned in the Pacific Northwest, and brings plenty of experience as an administrator at one of the South Carolina's prettiest private colleges, but his career includes no experience in South Carolina's public school classrooms. Of course, experience in the state's public schools is not a criteria for service as state superintendent. But Zais is the seventeenth person to hold the office since it was created in the mid-1800s -- the tenth superintendent began his term in 1922! -- and the first sixteen or so interpreted the charge of their office to mean they were the chief advocate and champion for the state's public schools, such as they were, as the public schools were the only state institution designed and ascribed to serve the needs of all South Carolina's children.

But Zais has reinterpreted that charge in such a way that may leave the schools without their advocate and champion for a few years. According to various media accounts, the superintendent suggested to senators that teachers with "personality," not experience or depth of study in their field, made the most effective instructors; therefore teachers should be paid based on their performance.

He said teacher pay should be determined more by performance than by credentials or seniority. And he said the strongest indicator of how well a teacher would do in a classroom is determined by personality, rather than experience or training.

That seemed to be the sum and substance of his plan to improve traditional public schools, but he brought a raft of suggestions to help children avoid attending those public schools:

Zais also called for more educational alternatives for parents and children, including charter schools, virtual schools, single gender schools and magnet schools.

And rather than invest the time and attention to bring disadvantaged schools up to standard, their state leader suggested tax breaks for poor parents whose children attend those schools:

Zais said dollars should follow the child in the public school system, rather than being allocated to the district. He said he supports tax breaks for low income parents of children who are in failing schools or school districts.

Given the choice between championing high expectations and standards or cutting the school year, and on the question of school consolidation, Zais played the local-control card:

Asked about how school districts should make up lost snow days, he said that should be a local decision. And he said he would not support cutting back on the number of mandated school days as a way to save money.

Dr. Zais also said the decision about whether to consolidate school districts should be a local decision, although he does support consolidating so called back office administrative functions between districts.

But the superintendent saved his best advice for the media at a photo opportunity held later the same day: Since charter schools that weren't chartered by local school districts are having difficulty funding their budgets, and since the state legislature (which created a statewide charter school district to let these schools exist without local approval) doesn't want to pay for them, Zais pledged his support for a proposal to take local district funding away from local districts to help pay for these detached charter schools.

Later in the day, Zais attended a news conference to support a bill that would require school districts to spend money on charter school students who live within the district’s boundaries. Charter schools are not governed by local school districts. Opponents of the measure have said that it’s wrong to take local dollars to support state sponsored schools.

What do YOU make of this?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Francis Marion: 'It is plainly the duty of government,' 1795

Sometimes a voice jumps off the page and demands to be heard, even from two centuries' distance.

So it is with Francis Marion, our historic Swamp Fox, who had a fortuitous last meeting with his biographer, Mason Locke Weems, in 1795. "Knowledge is wanting!" Marion declared to Weems. "Israel of old, you know, was destroyed for lack of knowledge; and all nations, all individuals, have come to naught from the same cause."

"If those that are free and happy, did but know their blessings, do you think they would ever exchange them for slavery? If the Carthagenians, for example, in the days of their freedom and self-government, when they obeyed no laws but of their own making; paid no taxes, but for their own benefit; and, free as air, pursued their own interest as they liked; I say, If that once glorious and happy people had known their blessings, would they have sacrificed them all, by their accursed factions, to the Romans, to be ruled, they and their children, with a rod of iron; to be burdened like beast, and crucified like malefactors?"

Weems allowed that surely the Carthagenians would not have, and Marion brought the subject home to South Carolina.

"Well, now to bring this home to ourselves. We fought for self-government; and God hath pleased to give us one, better calculated perhaps to protect our rights, to foster our virtues, to call forth our energies, and to advance our condition nearer to perfection and happiness, than any government that was ever framed under the sun."

"But what signifies even this government, divine as it is, if it not be known and prized as it deserves?"

Weems wrote that he asked Marion how the veteran proposed to bring such knowledge into widespread possession.

Marion replied, "Why certainly, by free schools."

Weems advised his host that the South Carolina legislature of the day would likely never support the expense of such a proposal. The thought drew Marion's tense response:

God preserve our Legislature from such penny wit and pound foolishness. What sir, keep a nation in ignorance, rather than vote a little of their own money for education! Only let such politicians remember what poor Carolina has already lost through her ignorance. What was it that brought the British, last war, to Carolina, but her lack of knowledge? Had the people been enlightened, they would have been united; and had they been united, they would never have been attacked a second time by the British. For after that drubbing they got from us at Fort Moultrie, in 1776, they would as soon have attacked the devil as attacked Carolina again, had they not heard that they were 'a house divided against itself'; or in other words, had amongst us a great number of tories; men who, through mere ignorance, were disaffected the cause of liberty, and ready to join the British against their own countrymen. Thus, ignorance begat toryism, and toryism begat losses in Carolina, of which few have any idea.

...the enormous price of public property, in the last war, being no more, as before observed, than the natural effect of public ignorance, ought to teach us that of alol sins, there is none so hateful to God as national ignorance; that unfailing spring of national ingratitude, rebellion, slavery, and wretchedness.

As proof that such hellish tragedies would never have been acted, had our state but been enlightened, only let us look at the people of New England. From Britain, their fathers had fled for religion's sake. Religion had taught them that God created men to be happy; that to be happy they must have virtue; that virtue is not to be attained without knowledge, nor knowledge without instruction, nor public instruction without free schools, nor free schools without legislative order.

Among a people who fear God, the knowledge of duty is the same as doing it. Believing it to be the first command of God, 'let there be light', and believing it to be the will of God that 'all should be instructed, from the least to the greatest,' these wise legislators at once set about public instruction. They did not ask, how will my constituents like this? Won't they turn me out? Shall I not lose my three dollars per day? No! But fully persuaded that public instruction is God's will, because the people's good, they set about it like the true friends of the people.

Now mark the happy consequence. When the war broke out, you heard of no division in New England, no toryism, nor any of its horrid effects; no houses in flames, kindled by the hands of fellow-citizens, no neighbors waylaying and shooting their neighbors, plundering their property, carrying off their stock, and aiding the British in the cursed work of American murder and subjugation. But on the contrary, with minds well informed of their rights, and hearts glowing with love for themselves and posterity, they rose up against the enemy, firm and united, as a band of shepherds against the ravening wolves.

In short, my dear sir, men will always fight for their government according to their sense of its value. To value it aright they must understand it. This they cannot do without education. And, as a large portion of the citizens are poor, and can never attain that inestimable blessing without the aid of government, it is plainly the duty of government to bestow it freely upon them. And the more perfect the government, the greater the duty to make it well known. Selfish and oppressive governments must 'hate the light and fear to come to it, because their deeds are evil.' But a fair and cheap government, like our republic, 'longs for the light and rejoices to come to the light, that it may be manifested to be from God,' and well worth all the vigilance and valor that an enlightened nation can rally for its defence. And, God knows, a good government can hardly ever be half anxious enough to give its citizens a thorough knowledge of its own excellencies. For, as some of the most valuable truths, for lack of promulgation, have been lost, so the best government on earth, if not widely known and prized, may be subverted. Ambitious demagogues will rise, and the people through ignorance, and love of change, will follow them.

In describing Marion's demeanor in this last conversation, Weems wrote that the hero's "agitation was great, his voice became altered and broken; and his face kindled over with that living fire with which it was wont to burn, when he entered the battles of his country."

As tremendous a strategist and soldier as he was in times of the American Revolution, Marion might have made one of South Carolina's greatest champions of public education had he lived in a later century. In his absence, who are the state's champions of public instruction today?