A comprehensive plan for
making us wealthier and wiser
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
LARRY WILSON, one of the chief architects
of the Education Accountability Act, came by the office the other day and offered a pretty compelling vision for what South Carolina should do next.
The local entrepreneur doesn’t hold elective office, and doesn’t claim to speak for anyone but himself. But the ideas he put forth are worth sharing because:
- He is a board member for the Palmetto Institute, and that think tank is expected to join with the Palmetto Business Forum, the Competitiveness Council and the state Chamber of Commerce to set forth a unified vision for how to make the average South Carolinian wealthier. Some of these ideas may crop up in that context.
- He is also close to the new speaker of the S.C. House, Bobby Harrell. How many of these ideas Mr. Harrell buys into and how many he has told Mr. Wilson — according to Larry’s account — just aren’t feasible I don’t know.
Nor do I know how many of these ideas my editorial board colleagues and I will go for once we sit down and study them.
But I was sufficiently impressed by this set of interlocked proposals that it seems worth throwing out to see what others think. If not this, we need some kind of comprehensive strategy for moving South Carolina forward. We must get beyond the usual piecemeal responses to crises and interest group demands if we’re to catch up.
The critical element that ties all of these ideas together is the unassailable fact that education and economic development are inseparable. If we don’t realize that, we’ll continue to make 80 percent of the national income.
I don’t have room to set out everything covered in our wide-ranging discussion, but here are the most intriguing and/or appealing ideas that I heard:
Mr. Wilson wants an Education Quality Act that includes:
- Early remediation. Third-graders scoring below basic on the PACT would attend school year-round in the fourth grade, under master teachers or National Board-certified teachers. The teachers’ incentive? Higher pay for 230 days of teaching. He would then add a grade level at a time, on up to high school.
- Full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds. This would be provided at “accountable, certified” public and private schools, “financed by vouchers and integrated w/First Steps.” The money might come in part from consolidating current pre-5K efforts, and be distributed in a way markedly different from the awful “Put Parents in Charge” scheme: Low-income kids would get full funding (about $4,000 apiece). The money would go to the school their parents choose. Higher-income folks would get a tax deduction (not a credit) to help with a portion of the cost. “I’m absolutely against vouchers in the public schools, by the way,” Mr. Wilson said. “But this is an area where I think it will work.”
- An appointed state superintendent of education.
- A BRAC-style commission for reducing the absurd number of school districts in the state. He credited this idea to Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, citing the facts that 41 of the state’s 85 districts serve only 14 percent of all students, but account for 100 percent of schools judged “unsatisfactory” under the Accountability Act.
- A statewide salary schedule for educators, by category and qualification. This way, for instance, Marion County wouldn’t lose good teachers to Horry just because the Grand Strand county can pay so much more.
Mr. Wilson would like to increase the lottery money going to endowed chairs from $30 million to $40 million to take greater advantage of this indispensable tool for helping our research universities to boost our economy.
He would also push for an Industry Partners Act that would:
- Recruit or set up companies to apply cutting-edge research going on in the state, accelerating the growth of economic clusters built around automotive innovation (Clemson), “Next Energy” development (USC) and biotech (MUSC and USC). The idea would be to market the state’s under-acknowledged assets and provide such incentives as local demonstration projects — say, running buses in the Midlands on hydrogen. The goal: to see these products manufactured here, by highly paid South Carolinians.
- Define respective, interconnected roles for the state Commerce Department, universities, S.C. Research Authority and tech system in boosting knowledge-based enterprises in the state.
Comprehensive tax reform, of course — the only kind worth talking about. Fortunately, while there’s a lot of talk regarding “property tax relief” as an end in itself, the climate has never been better for realigning our whole tax structure.
Mr. Wilson calls it “tax-balancing.” He would shift the burden of financing schools to the state (the only way to standardize teacher pay and otherwise reduce the gap between rich and poor districts). A Senate panel is talking about replacing the property tax as a school funding source with a higher sales tax. But Mr. Wilson raises two caveats: Care must be taken not to raise the sales tax to the point that S.C. merchants can’t compete with the Internet and neighboring states, and the tax burden must not be shifted to businesses to the point that it stifles job creation.
That latter point is worth considering for a reason he didn’t bring up: If only owner-occupied homes were exempted from school property taxes, gross inequality would still exist between districts rich in industry and commerce, and those without that base.
He would also:
- Eliminate the $300 cap on the automobile sales tax.
- Raise our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.
“The point of all this is, it fits together,” Mr. Wilson concluded. “You can’t fix one problem without fixing the other.”