Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Four-year-old L.B. Moran of Beaufort awaits his answer

According to yesterday's edition of The State newspaper, anyone visiting the state Department of Education can pick up a copy of a letter that Su-Pretendent Mick Zais sent to the U.S. Department of Education regarding his refusal of its $144 million in federal funding to pay for educators' jobs in our state. That letter, according to the article, includes this line -- "underlined and in bold type": "South Carolina can meet our educational challenges without micromanagement by the federal government."

I addressed the context in which such an asinine statement as this one lives in our beloved state, following faithfully in a long tradition of demagoguery rooted in animus toward the federal government and an unfounded yet hyper-inflated sense of superiority among our sister-states. We do love to watch our ideological warmongers beat their breasts and hear the tinny jingling of their medals.

Sadly, however, our children continue to suffer.

It's in this light that I invite General Zais to consider the case of L.B. Moran, a visually-impaired four-year boy living in Beaufort. His older brother, R. Lee, already attends Port Royal Elementary School, and his parents, Joseph and Candi, have been trying to enroll L.B. in that school since April, and indeed met with special services representatives from the Beaufort County School District on multiple occasions in April, May and June.

Here's a child living in one of South Carolina's oldest communities, General Zais; its first attempted settlement predates Charleston by 108 years. His parents are clearly actively engaged in their child's education. And the little boy clearly has special needs -- he is legally blind -- that qualify him as an at-risk child.

Port Royal Elementary School began its school year on Monday, the same day that a few dozen educators gathered outside the Rutledge Building to protest the Department's decision -- supported by Her Excellency Nikki Haley, on a jaunt that day to Daniel Island -- to refuse $144 million in federal funds to pay for educator jobs.

But L.B. wasn't enrolled to attend school on that starting day. After meeting with district staff in Beaufort for the past four months, L.B.'s parents are "left with yet another meeting scheduled for August 25, 2011."

In frustration, L.B.'s parents have sent letters to Beaufort's superintendent, school board members and others to get their child enrolled in school. That hasn't yielded results, so they have begun to forward their letters to others, including Educating South Carolina, to bring attention to their struggle.

"What a disgrace," L.B.'s father writes. "How long does it take to establish an individualized education program (IEP)?"

Would someone kindly explain to our family why the BCSD "Special Services Coordinator" et al are unable to perform their duties, in a timely manner, and coordinate the educational special needs of a little boy from Port Royal?

Everyone knows the State and the BCSD have plenty of money set aside for special needs children, right? Back in June Mick Zais’ office was scrambling to head off the 11th hour loss of more than $100 million in federal money because it had not spent enough on special education in the past few years.

Having no more information than this, I wonder: Does BCSD have sufficient staff resources to address the needs of Beaufort's students and parents? Does Port Royal Elementary School have the "minimally adequate" resources to meet the needs of L.B. Moran? Has Beaufort County, and Port Royal Elementary School, suffered -- as the rest of the state has suffered -- staff cuts and budget cuts that leave it now unable to function effectively?

And how many children and parents are in exactly the same struggle as L.B. and his parents?

To right the state's fiscal ship, South Carolina's lawmakers and decisionmakers have cut thousands of educator jobs during the past three years, leaving fewer education professionals to meet greater needs. Is this one result of those decisions?

To protect corporate tax loopholes and other business exemptions in the state's tax code, lawmakers chose to cut funding for programs instead, leaving a per pupil expenditure of $1,788 -- down from its stratospheric high of $2,476 per pupil in 2008. Is that sufficient funding to meet the educational needs of each one of the state's children, including four-year-old L.B. Moran in Beaufort, for this year?

And, like Joseph Moran, I recall reading in the newspapers about the threatened loss of $111 million in federal special education funding -- money designated specifically for children with special needs -- in June. Our state su-pretendent was caught flat-footed, and plenty of folks, including lawmakers, wondered why. Yet he is still in office; he is what we have while we wait for 2014.

That is, unless Haley is successful at turning the superintendency into an appointed, rather than elected, position. In that case, all may be lost for good; Haley has expressed her support for Zais, and could very well wind up appointing him to serve a second term if she gets the chance.

The worst irony of this unfortunate mess is that Zais, who holds the office of the state's chief advocate for public education and South Carolina's public schoolchildren, has every reason to understand what challenges the Morans are facing. Consider the "message" he delivered to the public on January 14 of this year, as he took office:

For too many years, we have sought to fix education from the top down. New standards are adopted. New tests are created. New curricula are purchased. Program after program has been promoted as the silver bullet that will fix education in our state. Some changes in public policy have resulted in passing the buck, yet again, to classroom teachers who invariably have to make more bricks with little or no straw.

My firsthand experience from years as a teacher at the United States Military Academy at West Point impressed upon me the need for strong and supportive leadership in educational institutions. The Dean of Academic Affairs didn’t come to my classroom and tell me how to teach organizational behavior, management, and leadership to the cadets. He expected me to use my knowledge and leadership experience to challenge and develop every student. In return, he and the staff at West Point provided structure and order so that real learning could take place in my classroom. The education leadership in our state needs to have as its No. 1 priority providing this same respect, support, and order for our teachers and students.

When I became the president of Newberry College, I committed myself to providing the best environment for teaching and learning that I could. Budgets were tight, but we focused on what was best for the students and aggressively pursued an agenda to transform the school. This included eliminating unnecessary programs, streamlining administration, investing in technology and facilities, and raising the level of professionalism among professors and coaches. We built a learning community with a plan for every freshman to graduate not only with a diploma, but with the life skills to be a successful professional, a member of the military, or to continue their education in graduate school.

As a child with a learning disability who attended ten public schools in twelve years, I know firsthand what a profound difference an excellent teacher can make. But in order to make that difference, teachers must be unfettered by rigid schedules, freed from time-consuming paperwork, and unencumbered by excessive bureaucracy. When that is accomplished, teachers can change children’s lives and dramatically improve expectations and achievement.

Pretty words, but L.B. Moran of Beaufort -- and hundreds of thousands of South Carolina's public schoolchildren, their parents and educators -- some still employed, others out of work -- are waiting for the pretty words to be turned into reality.

So, General Zais, tell us: Can South Carolina meet our educational challenges without micromanagement by the federal government? Or will it take an intervention from beyond our borders to ensure that our children have their educational needs met?

You're the man in the office. You tell us. This school year has already begun.

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