South Carolina legislators face June deadline for developing plan to improve public schools



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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Legislators start the 2016 session facing a June deadline for developing a plan to improve South Carolina's public schools so that more students have a chance for success.

Legislative leaders pledge to respond to the state Supreme Court's November 2014 ruling that poor, rural students lack educational opportunities. Addressing the justices' order — on a lawsuit initially filed by rural districts in 1993 — is a top priority for legislators of both parties for the session that began Tuesday.

Their response in the budget will likely continue and possibly expand initiatives launched in the past few years, such as virtual classes, more technology money for rural schools, and summer reading programs.

But a total revamp seems highly unlikely.

Leaders don't expect to tackle this year the decades-old education formulas that justices criticized as a complicated, outdated "funding scheme."

Superintendent Molly Spearman said last week legislators should commit to rewriting those formulas, which date to the 1977 Education Finance Act, over the next few years.

"We've Band-aided and Band-aided and Band-aided. It's not just hurting rural districts, it's hurting every district in South Carolina," she told a Senate panel last week. "With the growth that's coming into South Carolina, it's going to get worse. It's time to take it on and get committed."

The 1977 law, which established the base student cost, is still a major source of state money distributed to districts. Adjusted yearly for inflation, it was meant to cover the minimal education needs of the time. But the Legislature hasn't fully funded the base student cost since the Great Recession.

According to the state budget office, doing so in 2016-17 would cost an additional $684 million. Such an increase has been a non-starter for the Legislature's GOP majority.

Lawmakers of both parties have for years agreed the formulas need to be overhauled. But a revamp requires delving into local property taxes — another major funding source for districts — and the issue of property being worth far less in poor areas.

House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison said that is too big of a task to take on in a year with several other big-price-tag priorities. Road funding, flood relief and pension reform will dominate much of the discussion.

"When you start looking at funding formulas, it's an all-encompassing situation," said Allison, R-Lyman. "You can't just look at the education formula and correct it without looking at the total tax structure."

Spearman has asked legislators to create a grant program to help plaintiff districts maintain and construct buildings.

"In some districts, they didn't even have a maintenance crew. Things have deteriorated so they do need new structures," said Allison, whose study committee held hearings in plaintiff districts last year.

But such a program appears at least a year away. Leaders want to fund an evaluation of districts' infrastructure needs before debating how much to set aside.

Education officials and many legislators also want to restructure the state salary schedule to pay teachers more. But that, too, appears unlikely to happen this year. A separate study panel that includes educators is working on the details.

The state high court set its end-of-session deadline in a revised order last November. Justices' initial order to submit a plan by Feb. 1 angered legislative leaders, who appealed what they called an impractical, arbitrary date and an overreach of judicial authority.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she's not optimistic that whatever passes the Legislature will address the root problems.

The appeal "spoke volumes as to whether or not we'll actually do anything," she said. "We can study and study and study until we can't study anymore. At what point do we stop studying problems and issues and start doing something?"

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