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.

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