Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Public schools are no budget priority in South Carolina

I appreciate reading Bill Davis's columns in Statehouse Report, as they're usually quite cogent and pertinent analyses of the state's unncessary misfortunes. His item in the August 5 edition was no different, titled "State avoids fully funding education."

Comprehensive and sensible public education reform could benefit, or be the victim of, competing political agendas in the days ahead.

South Carolina has always struggled with the confluence of education and money, from the time of slavery until modern times. And the 2011-12 school year will be no different based on trends.

In hopes of better competing with regional, national, and international school systems, South Carolina’s legislature in 1977 passed a series of funding bills to funnel money into schools and maintain funding on a per-pupil basis, also known as base student funding.

How has that gone over the past 10 years? Does the word “rollercoaster” ring a bell? Despite claims by legislators that education was cut last and “held harmless” in recent years, the hard numbers tell a different story.

State law requires the General Assembly to fund school districts at roughly $2,700 per-student for the current school and fiscal year, according to state officials. But, the legislature, making use of special one-year temporary laws called provisos, has routinely skirted funding the full amount.

How far off? The actual per-pupil amount this year is $1,880, according to the state Department of Education, with even less in recurring funding. In other words, the base student allocation is roughly one-third off.

As a diligent journalist, Davis was bound to give Su-Pretendent Mick Zais's spinmeister, Jay Ragley, time and space to rationalize the deep cuts.

Though diligent, I am not similarly bound; I will offer my own interpretation of Ragley's answer, in my own words: In South Carolina, under the present leadership at the state and legislative level, adequate funding for public education is not high on anyone's priority list.

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility; say it enough times and it loses meaning.

And, what a law says is subject to interpretation: You say you don't have enough money to do the job, I say you do. That's life. Deal with it.

Currently, the per-pupil funding is on par with actual dollar amounts from the 1998-99 budget. And the total amount of education funding from the state’s General Fund, which doesn’t include federal pass-through dollars, dropped to $1.8 billion last year in 2010-11. That represented a nearly $300-million cut from the previous year, and is on par with state appropriations from 10 years ago -- before the dot-com bubble burst was completely felt.

Davis included some views from educators themselves on the matter, Scott Price of the South Carolina School Boards Association and Jackie Hicks, president of The South Carolina Education Association.

Price, who is paid to advocate on behalf public education, said he saw the paucity and the up-and-down nature of per-pupil funding as a bellwether of other state priorities.

“If we’re a decade behind in school funding, then we better take a look at the conditions of our state roads, and the number of law enforcement officers we have patrolling them.”

This was far from the first year that Jackie B. Hicks, president of the S.C. Education Association, became frustrated with legislators for skirting the law they passed to set per-pupil spending. She said the legislature ought to follow its own legislation or write a new law to solve the ongoing problems.

“In our state, leadership has not done a good job of putting public education first,” Hicks said. “Provisos have depleted everything,” which, she said, was especially damaging in a state with such a high ratio of children depending on school-based free and reduced price lunch and breakfast programs.

Offering a view into his "crystal ball," Davis concluded, "Failure to act on the voluminous Taxation Realignment Commission final report this year showed how little interest the General Assembly has in affecting major taxation changes. And with next year being an election year and the dominant perception being that an exemption removed is a new tax created, there may be no simple answer to improving state school funding issues."

Which is how many educators are reminded every day that we live in South Carolina.

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