on July 1, 2009 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

General Assembly does what it can to protect public schools

By Paul Krohne, SCSBA Executive Director

Sometimes, the best that can be said of a bad situation is that it could have been a whole lot worse.

Budget realities being what they are, it’s disappointing but not surprising that the General Assembly has concluded the legislative session without addressing major reforms critical to advancing education in South Carolina — including comprehensive tax reform, adequate and equitable funding and expansion of prekindergarten programs for children at risk of school failure, among others.

But while this wasn’t a year for progress, those of us who care about public education can be grateful to the Legislature for doing what it could to protect our schools in a difficult economy and for taking at least a tentative step forward on long-overdue reforms.

The single most important victory for public education during this year’s session is the General Assembly’s decision to allocate $350 million in federal stimulus funding targeted largely toward public schools, despite Governor Mark Sanford’s long and drawn-out battle to block it.

That benefit will be felt in every school and every classroom in South Carolina. Vital programs threatened with big reductions — including summer schools, after-school programs, adult education and course offerings — will continue in many districts. Teacher furloughs have been reduced in some districts and eliminated in others.

Most important, stimulus funding will enable schools to preserve hundreds of teaching positions that would have been lost without it, avoiding some of the class size increases that affect students most directly.

Other successes were less well publicized but also important in preserving the ability of public schools to perform their core functions in difficult times. Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved one of our organization’s top priorities, a flexibility provision freeing districts from some restrictions on how state funding may be used and allowing them to target limited resources toward classroom instruction. It is our hope that this much-needed flexibility will become permanent law during the 2010 legislative session. And in the session’s waning minutes, the Legislature authorized the use of $159 million in special federal bonds for school construction and renovation, with special emphasis on funding facilities in high-growth and rural areas.

To their credit, state lawmakers also turned back, for a fifth straight year, the well-funded effort by out-of-state interests led by the governor to undermine public education by sending to private schools resources that are badly needed in public schools.

And in passing the South Carolina Taxation Realignment Commission, the Legislature took at least a small step toward the goal of reforming the state’s outdated and dysfunctional system of raising resources for education and other public purposes.

Unfortunately, the bill as finally approved can only be described as better than nothing, since it abandons the requirement for an up-or-down vote on a full package, reducing prospects for real reform. Worse, it specifically excludes recommendations for fixing the problems created by Act 388, which severely limited the most stable source of school revenues — leading in large part to the budget crunch schools are experiencing now. The unwillingness of our legislators to address the crisis caused by the law stands at the top of our major disappointments list. This crisis must be addressed in 2010.

The actions taken this session won’t save public schools from another year of budget troubles. The base student cost is hundreds of dollars per student lower than in the past three years and more than $350 per student lower than what it should be for 2009-2010. Schools still expect to lose more than 1,900 jobs, including 1,000 teachers.

The loss of another year is frustrating in a state with great needs and very little time to waste.

And while the Legislature did its best to protect education from the worst effects of a bad situation, we will hope for better progress next year.

Dr. Paul Krohne is executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, a non-profit organization serving as a source of information and a statewide voice for boards governing the 85 school districts. He has more than 30 years of experience serving public education.