Former Gov. Riley, 2 state superintendents address 1st meeting of education reform group

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Former South Carolina officials said Monday the solution for fixing South Carolina's broken education system must include simplifying how schools are funded, staffing them with qualified teachers and improving facilities.

The 17-member education reform committee heard from former Democratic Gov. Dick Riley — also U.S. secretary of education under President Bill Clinton. Riley outlined 13 broad policy suggestions, starting with focusing on attracting and retaining effective teachers and principals.

The state Supreme Court has offered lawmakers a "significant, even generational, opportunity to get this right," said Riley, who received a standing ovation before speaking. "Think comprehensively. Don't be piecemeal about what you are trying to do. That's how we got here in the first place."

House Speaker Jay Lucas created the group to answer justices' ruling last November that the state's funding scheme fails to provide students in poor, rural districts the opportunity to receive the constitutionally mandated "minimally adequate" education. The court told legislators and district officials to collectively fix the problem but gave no clear instructions for doing so.

Lucas, R-Darlington, told the panel not to think in terms of the minimum the court requires, but of students reaching their maximum potential.

"Focus on achieving what others think cannot be achieved," he said.

The group includes House members, business representatives and district officials.

Former Republican Superintendent Barbara Nielsen and Democratic Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum also testified.

Nielsen said the funding system is nearly incomprehensible. Over the years, programs have been duplicated on top of other programs, she said.

"What we have is a patchwork of programs and line items and funding sources. It's like Abbot and Costello of 'Who's on First?'" said Nielsen, superintendent from 1991 to 1999. "I think we need a single budget. Put it one pot and then look at where we're spending it" and give districts flexibility to spend within broad categories.

She also called it disgraceful that beginning teachers in South Carolina make so little that they can qualify for food stamps. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree is $29,589, although school districts can choose to pay more.

"I meet too many teachers working two jobs just so they can support their family," Nielsen said, adding the state must invest in teachers and administrators, using a fair evaluation system.

Tenenbaum pointed to, among other things, justices' criticism of a school bus transportation system that places too much burden on districts that can't afford the responsibility. The order noted that some students in rural districts spend as much as four hours a day getting to and from school.

"This is unacceptable," said Tenenbaum, superintendent from 1999 to 2007. She urged the committee to work toward a goal of no child spending more than 90 minutes daily on a school bus.

She also applauded the House Ways and Means Committee for advancing the idea last week of a $500 million state bond bill, about $50 million of which would be set aside for K-12 schools. It would be the first such borrowing bill in 15 years.

That may not be enough to "do away with the poor condition of facilities in our poorest districts," she said, but they lack the tax base to do so on their own.

The committee has until next January to make its recommendations.

House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison, who also leads the panel, said the group will meet at least three more times before the legislative session ends in June. The next meeting will be March 23 in Dillon, one of the plaintiff districts in the lawsuit first filed in 1993.

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