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Lawmakers still working toward school finance solution

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By Matthew Clark
mclark@scbiznews.com
Published Nov. 19, 2015

S.C. Speaker of the House Jay Lucas said he believes his chamber will have legislation aimed at answering a Supreme Court challenge regarding education funding equality for rural school districts in the state.

“I asked the task force to have a recommendation on my desk by January 2016, and it looks like they are on track to have that ready,” Lucas, a Darlington Republican, said.

The House Education Task Force — comprising seven lawmakers, the state Superintendent of Education and other education professionals — was formed by Lucas following a November 2014 decision by the state Supreme Court that the General Assembly needed to create a “constitutionally compliant education system.” The decision was part of a nearly 20-year court case brought against the state by 39 rural school districts in the state.

In the case — Abbeville School District et al. v. the State of South Carolina et al. — the school districts contended the school funding formula for state funds was inequitable and favored larger districts. In November 2014, the court issued a 3-2 ruling in favor of the districts.

The court tasked the General Assembly to find a solution and develop “remedies addressing the court’s findings. Lucas created the House Education Task Force and Senate President Pro Tempore Hal Leatherman Jr. established the Senate Special Subcommittee to address the ruling. The court also gave the General Assembly until Feb. 1, 2016 to present its findings, a part of the ruling both Lucas and Leatherman contended would take away from any progress made by both committees.

On Nov. 5, the court issued an opinion dismissing the immediate deadlines and giving lawmakers until one week after the conclusion of the 2016 session to present findings for review.

Lucas said, while funding is an important part of the equation, the committees are trying to look at the whole picture when it comes to how students are educated in the state.

“We’re not just looking at funding, although it is an important component and we understand that,” Lucas said. “We are taking a long, hard look at programs and we think there are ways to improve that don’t require additional funding.”

While an exact dollar amount has not been discussed, the S.C. Education Association issued a report in May suggesting “an additional $200 million annually in South Carolina’s public schools would generate more than $400 million in revenue and create approximately 10,000 new jobs.” The report also suggested lawmakers remove “many of the $3.1 billion in special-interest tax exemptions that may no longer be prudent or valid and apply previously lost revenue toward public education.

Billy Strickland, superintendent for Laurens County School District 55, a district in the suit, said that it is a complex issue and that he felt the General Assembly is trying to find a solution.

One of the big issues, according to Strickland, is assessed valuation. The mill levy is tax dollars based on property valuation. If the assessed property valuation is low, a mill won’t generate as much and vice versa. Strickland said a mill in Laurens County generates approximately $60,000. However a mill in neighboring Greenwood County generates only about $8,000.

“Does the difference in a zip code mean a difference in the education?” Strickland said. “Nobody wants more; they just want a basic education.”

Another component of a potential solution is teacher pay. The S.C. Education Association suggested establishing a beginning teacher salary of $40,000 per year and reaching that within a five-year period. Lucas said one of the subcommittees of the House task force is geared toward looking at teacher pay in the state.

“Teacher pay is critical in South Carolina, and we are worried about a shortage of teachers in the state,” Lucas said. “I think that has to be a critical part of reform in South Carolina.

Lucas said the key to all of it is how to get there. He said utilizing technology to create things like virtual classrooms is a way to help bolster the education of rural students without dipping into general funds or raising taxes. He said it is solutions like that he has asked his task force to come up with by January 2016.

“One of the interesting things we have found is that a lot of the programs that would help these districts are already in place; they just haven’t been funded properly,” Lucas said. “We are just going to have to go through this very meticulously and find out how to spend this money smarter.

“We really want to focus on getting students career ready and ready for the workforce. Those types of changes we can make, and they don’t have a tremendously high price tag. We also understand that we can do things a lot smarter.”

Strickland said he was encouraged by the fact Lucas expects to have legislation to address rural school funding in January and that the S.C. House will debate such legislation during the 2016 session.

“I think there would be some considerations in some form or fashion for the rural districts,” Strickland said. “We don’t want to take money from anyone, and the lawmakers know the challenges.”

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-235-5677, ext. 107 or on Twitter @matthewclark76

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