Senators start discussions on the state Supreme Court's education funding order 5 months ago

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A Senate panel began discussions Thursday on how to respond to the state Supreme Court's order five months ago that legislators fix South Carolina's broken education system.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman told the subcommittee revamping the funding formulas is long overdue. It was the first meeting of the five-member Senate panel created to find a solution to the high court's ruling.

Ruling on a 21-year-old case, the justices found in November that the state's decades-old, piecemeal funding scheme fails to provide students in poor, rural districts the opportunity to succeed. They told legislators and district officials to collectively fix the problem but gave no clear instructions and no timeline for doing so.

An answer will not come this year.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said the panel he co-chairs will work in the off-session with the goal of advancing legislation next year. Hayes expects the next meeting to be after the session ends in June. A 17-member panel created by House Speaker Jay Lucas — which includes educators — began meeting in February and has until January to make recommendations.

Sen. Greg Hembree said the task is overwhelming.

"I felt like the court was saying, 'Fix world peace and get back to us on Tuesday,'" said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, adding the complex problem involves far more than what occurs in classrooms. "The decision leaves me scratching my head. ... At least it provides focus and motivation to tackling that problem. We should work harder. We can do better."

Attorney Carl Epps said he's disappointed by the slow response. Every day of delay is another day children miss out on a better future, he said.

"I understand it's a deliberative process, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime generation, and we want to get it right," said Epps, who represented rural districts that sued the state for adequate funding in 1993. "But we need to pick up the pace."

Spearman said she's working to coordinate the many volunteer groups that want to help.

"There are a lot of little things going on all over. The problem is there's no coordination," she said. "None of these groups are talking to each other."

She said a major initiative of her term will be working to provide all at-risk children high-quality educational opportunities after school and during the summer.

"Even if we have great teachers doing their jobs in the regular school year, and we send them home with no opportunity for nurturing in the summer, they come back further behind than we left them and the gap widens," said Spearman, a former teacher and principal.

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