“This has been a different, and difficult year for South Carolina; a year that warrants a different kind of speech,” Gov. Haley said in her recent State of the State Address.
And indeed there were some differences in the speech; she introduced people who were part of our recent tragedies of the Emanuel shooting and the floods. She called on senators to physically stand up during the speech to signify their support for her ethics reform. For once, she talked a lot about education, especially some new spending on K-12 education. And, there was some new language about the need to do something about our crumbling roads and bridges.
But in the end, it wasn’t really different. Yes, there was a bit of a difference in style and in format, but in terms of a difference in substance or vision – or even a real difference in policy, it was pretty much the same politics as usual.
There was no new overarching vision. There was no linkage of our recent racial tragedy (the Emanuel shooting) with our historic racial legacy (failing schools). In the end, her proposals were really just a rehash of the familiar debate about spending more or less on this or that – and not about a new creative or innovative strategy for spending better, smarter or more efficiently.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that Gov. Haley focused on education – but what she didn’t say was really more important than what she did say.
There is probably no other subject that has been the focus of more of these weekly columns than education. There is a simple reason: it is the most important issue facing our state. What we do (or don’t do) in fixing education will have more impact on the short, medium and long term future of our state than practically anything else.
Gov. Haley’s biggest education proposal called for a bond to borrow $200 million to repair K-12 schools. Anyone who has spent much time in some of our schools – especially in rural areas – would testify to the need. The only question is how are the allocations going to be made? Will the decisions be made based on who has the most political clout or on which schools have the greatest needs? Left to politics as usual, we know how things will end up.
Haley also proposed a much needed plan to slow teacher turnover in rural areas by paying for state college tuition for teachers who commit to teach for eight years in poor or rural school districts. A good start and higher pay for good teachers in these schools would do even more.
If there was a (fairly) bold initiative, it was in her proposal for education and technology. She proposed seven new charter schools and more teachers in virtual school programs. She wants significant new spending to connect local schools and to bring broadband to 10,000 homes of underserved students. She also proposed significant spending for new digital instructional materials. All in all, her new spending in these areas totaled over $50 million.
Her final education proposal called for a ballot initiative to abolish the superintendent of education as an elected position and make the position appointed by the governor – just as it is in 38 other states. This is a good idea as the governor ought to be able to choose the school chief they want who will help carry out their educational objectives.
Haley’s proposals are all sound, but they don’t go far enough – not nearly far enough.
We should begin by understanding that though these are steps forward, in recent years we took many steps backward. A few years ago during the depths of the recession, South Carolina led the country in how much we cut education. While other states had a cut education last policy, we seemed to have a policy of cut education first. And to make matters worse, Haley turned down millions of dollars in federal stimulus money that would have allowed us to continue to pay hundreds of teachers rather than lay them off.
We are now left with her proposals that are trying to make up a few hundred yards of lost ground from the miles of ground we gave up in the recession. And, we entered the recession far behind to begin with.
Moreover, it is far from certain that the legislature will even give Haley the modest education measures she asked for in her speech. Already we are hearing the same old voices talking about cutting spending so we can cut taxes further.
We are still stuck in the same old, worn out debate of spend more or spend less… not spend better.
I’m glad Gov. Haley took a few baby steps in the right direction but we must not kid ourselves – we as a state need leapfrog jumps in education.
That really would be different.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. firstname.lastname@example.org