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Education bill aims to improve early education

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An S.C. Senate education reform bill providing for statewide 4K, early childhood literacy readiness and heightened state authority over struggling school districts passed with a 40-4 vote last week. The bill awaits House amendments.

Critics of the S.C. Career Opportunity and Access for All bill (pdf), such as advocacy group S.C. for Ed, argue that it fails to address class size issues, school district funding or decreased testing, but leaders in South Carolina’s workforce development and education sectors welcome some of the bill’s initiatives.

Danny Merck, superintendent of the School District of Pickens County, says he is encouraged by the bill’s progress toward increased teacher pay, early childhood education and formative assessment measures.

“It’s not just something that will affect us this year; it sets the tone for many years to come,” Merck said. “I applaud the legislators. They’ve done an excellent job with coming up with this and it is obvious they have spent a lot of time on it. Now, the House and Senate working together over the next month or so will be very important.”

The Senate bill asks the S.C. Department of Education to provide recommendations for consolidating pay bands so that starting teachers have a similar starting salary as teachers employed for several years, according to Ryan Brown, a spokesperson for the department. Brown said critics claim the amendment fails to reward veteran teachers.

A $3,000 raise for all teachers was part of the two-month debate, along with classroom supply stipends and financial assistance for teachers seeking board certification. A House bill passed Wednesday features the $3,000 statewide raise for teachers and was relayed to the Senate Finance Committee. Brown expects the measure to be passed this year.

Across the state, free 4K education will be offered statewide if the bill becomes law, along with measures enhancing early childhood literacy readiness. Statewide 4K education is not included in a previous House education reform bill.

“This is bill is very expansive. The parts that we pay the most attention to are the parts that relate to the Read to Succeed Act and improving the quality of life for teachers, because obviously, there is a teacher shortage here and we’re looking to recruit and retain high quality teachers,” said Lindsey Jacobs, policy and advocacy director of Greenville-based Public Education Partners. She says the bill will direct the Education Department to enforce “unencumbered” breaks for teachers throughout the workday.

The Read to Succeed Act retains third graders if they fail to meet the requirements of a state-level reading assessment.

“One failure of the Read to Succeed Act is that we were waiting until 3rd grade to address a child’s inability to read on grade level,” Jacobs said of South Carolina’s existing literacy measures. “We both amended the Read to Succeed Act so that they are able to intervene much earlier.”

Mereck also supports the bill’s measures to establish formative, non-punitive assessment measures over summative, year-end tests.

“The emphasis on building the teacher and building the student all the way through is encouraging,” he said.

The bill also provides greater accessibility for state takeover of struggling school districts. According to Brown, the Education Department already can suspend a school board in an emergency, but it only relieves board members of their responsibilities, not their office. Once the suspension ends, the board can return to business.

The new legislation empowers the Education Department to remove a board and appoint new successors during the transition. Brown calls this the most important facet of the Senate bill.

Sara Hazzard, South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance CEO and president, lauded the bill for preparing the next generation’s technical workforce in a statement made last week.

“Ensuring a skilled and educated workforce that can thrive in today's growing market of technical career opportunities is the top priority for our state's manufacturers,” Hazzard said in the statement. “This is a key step forward in delivering an education reform package this session that will dramatically strengthen our education system and better prepare South Carolina students for future success.”

Reach Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.

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