Friday, March 2, 2012

Brack: South Carolina can do better for its public schools

Andy Brack does a great job producing a handy legislative summary called Statehouse Report, and I've praised him for it many times before. In the current edition, he outdoes himself with a superb analysis of our lawmakers' unwillingness to meet their responsibilities when it comes to public education.

To wit:

Despite overwhelming evidence that investing more money in early childhood education will yield huge dividends in the lives of South Carolina’s children, the typical refrain from Republicans who lead the legislature is cold and disheartening: “Well, you just can’t keep throwing money at education. You just can’t.”

Ahem. Yes, you can. And yes, you should.

You can invest more money by paying teachers better than average. You can invest more to give them the support they need so they can teach. You can upgrade technology. And you can get rid of old schools that aren’t good enough to be used as warehouses.

Yes, South Carolina’s leaders can do more for her children, more than a half million of whom live in poverty.

See what I mean?

But what does the legislature do again, year after year? It tries to get education on the cheap. Why? It certainly doesn’t help that we rank 49th from the top in state and local tax burden and 50th in state tax collections per capita, according to the Tax Foundation. All of the wailing and moaning about high taxes in South Carolina is a bunch of ridiculous hooey. We have a stressed-out system of public education because our leaders aren’t bold enough to innovate or courageous enough to do what’s right for the 693,000 children in our schools.

If you asked a financial adviser to characterize a business strategy that relied on tucking away a little money every month for retirement, the adviser would immediately agree that it was a conservative business strategy.

If families can do that for retirement, why can’t our leaders invest in our people -- to ensure them a better chance in life, a chance that would pay off to all of us with lower rates of poverty, incarceration, drug use, welfare and on and on?

A substantial investment in early childhood education -- making it possible for every 4-year-old in the state to attend some kind of pre-kindergarten program -- would pay off massively. If the state spent just 10 percent of its enormous $900 million in new revenues this year, it could guarantee pre-K programs across the state.

And look at the payoff in reducing poverty and giving more people a chance, according to the Riley Institute’s Don Gordon:

“The Pew Foundation uses national data to show that for every $10,000 spent on high quality pre-kindergarten programs which render children more ready for school and less likely to drop out, we save society a quarter of a million dollars in a dropout’s reduced contribution to society,” he told a group of state leaders at a late February conference.

Furthermore, “According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, if the number of male South Carolina students who graduated from high school increased by just 5 percent, our state’s economy could see a combination of crime-related savings and additional revenue of $151 million each year.”

Unfortunately, South Carolina legislators continue to underfund public education, year after year. State law requires K-12 education to receive “base student funding” calculated through a long-accepted formula that may be due for an overhaul. But based on that formula over the last 20 years, state lawmakers have fully-funded education only five times.

If memory serves, those years were 1988, 1989, 1990, 1998 and 1999. If that's not accurate, I'd appreciate the correct data.

Last year, for example, the formula called for $2,790 in base student funding, but lawmakers provided about two thirds of that with $1,880 in funding, an improvement because the original plan was for funding to be $1,788 per student. (They upped the formula funding by moving around some funds and adding some one-time monies.)

For 2012-13, the House Ways and Means Committee is calling again for a base student cost of $1,788, which is $1,002 per student less than what is called for fully-funding education. If you extrapolate that to reflect the 693,431 students projected to be in public schools next year, lawmakers are considering a budget that would underfund South Carolina education by a whopping $694,817,862 less than the law requires.

Wow. And you wonder why South Carolina’s students lag the rest of the nation? Not investing $700 million a year certainly is one big reason. We can do better.

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