Good news, bad news: Back to the political branches

AS THE ABOVE editorial indicates, the matter of whether young children will have a chance at a good education in South Carolina is back in the hands of the political branches. That’s very good and very bad.
    It’s very good because such matters of fundamental policy are political in nature. The courts can and should do no more than give us the constitutional parameters within which to act. And what the constitution says isn’t much:
    “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the State and shall establish, organize and support such other public institutions of learning, as may be desirable.”
    Courts have elaborated on that slightly. In 1999, the state Supreme Court added “minimally adequate” in front of “system” (not literally, as in amending the constitution, but in terms of our legal understanding). Many education advocates today, just a very few years later, see that “minimally” as a damning sentence of inadequacy. The great irony in that is that the chief justice who presided over that addition saw it as a great step forward for the progressive approach to education, insisting that South Carolina not define “adequate” below a certain, minimal level. That’s not the proper purview of judges, but in any case he did not have the effect he’d hoped for.
    Words can be slippery.
    I am reminded of the late Douglas Adams’ hilarious series of satirical science fiction novels. One of his main characters was a researcher for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The universe being a big place, the Guide had devoted only one word to describing Earth: “Harmless.” After 15 years of intensive research here on our planet, the field man manages to get his editors to expand the entry so that it reads, in its entirety: “Mostly harmless.”
    As it happens, 15 years is only one year longer than the life span of the lawsuit over where we will set the floor for educational opportunity in the poor, rural parts of our state. Abbeville County School District (et al.) v. the State of South Carolina was filed on Nov. 2, 1993. Almost 14 years later, it has added “minimally adequate” to our understanding of our constitutional obligation regarding education — and not even the people who agree on what they want our school system to be can agree on whether “minimally” is a good addition or a bad one.
    On to the political branches. That’s where the “very bad news” part comes in.
Education is the biggest thing government does at the state level, which is why people who vaguely, but insistently, desire to “reduce the size of government” are always talking about vouchers and tax credits aimed at preventing the state from spending so much on public schools.
    It also happens to be the one thing that government does that can most affect whether our state prospers. South Carolina hasn’t done it very well, relatively speaking, and so we have not prospered as well as other states. It’s not that we don’t know how to educate. It’s that we’ve never resolved to extend the sort of education available in our prosperous suburbs to the rural parts of our state that have been economically irrelevant since the end of slavery. The test scores from those areas pull down the state’s averages, scaring off economic development, which keeps those areas poor, which continues to scare off economic development, etc.
    It’s possible to break the cycle, but it would take a tremendous mustering and focusing of political will to overcome certain rather powerful political barriers.
    The Legislature won’t provide the answer, because it is the nexus of 170 political agendas. Many of the most adept of the 170 are from districts that see themselves as losing what they’ve got in any effort to focus resources on the poorest districts.
    The one political figure in the state in a position to chart a course that steers around all those shoals of local interest — to articulate a bold vision of statewide interest over the heads of lawmakers and fire up the electorate — is the governor. And our current governor hasn’t the slightest interest in doing that. He’s one of the folks who wants us to spend less on public education.
    (But “Spending alone won’t do it!”, you cry. You’re right. It will require implementing a comprehensive vision of reform, from classrooms to the state Department of Education. But if you’re not willing to spend, you can forget the rest. As long as the affluent parts of our state see themselves losing in a zero-sum game, you can’t turn around the poor parts with current overall spending levels.)
    The alternative would be an uprising of the people, a grass-roots movement that would make it impossible for even the most parochial of lawmakers to ignore the broader view.
    There is such a movement. A group called “Education First” plans to dramatize the need to get serious about improving public schools by putting up interstate billboards that will welcome visitors to South Carolina, the “home of ‘minimally adequate’ education.” This will humiliate us all, and effectively dramatize the moral indignation of the sincere, well-meaning liberal Democrats who lead “Education First.”
    Meanwhile, the State House is run by Republicans. Fortunately, many of those Republicans are more interested in public schools than the governor is, at least within the contexts of their own districts. Unfortunately, for them to become emboldened to risk themselves for a broader cause, they need to hear a message that sounds like it came from the people who elected them, and might elect them again.
So much for the political branches.
    This state of affairs is not “mostly harmless” to South Carolina. Tragically, it is not even minimally so.

14 thoughts on “Good news, bad news: Back to the political branches

  1. Rick Noble

    As is so often the case you speak the truth….get it right……”hit the nail on the head”…today’s editorial….your column and Lee Cory’s op-ed piece fit together nicely…….let’s do what we need to do…what we MUST do.

  2. John Warner

    You insist on repeating two myths about education that are just not true and do not serve to advance the discussion about how to create world class education for every child in South Carolina.
    The first is, “The test scores from [the rural parts of our state] pull down the state’s averages,” The truth is we’re in denial; the better educated a SC student’s parents, the further he trails peers nationally. The gap between South Carolina students and their peers is greater at the top than at the bottom, so our problem is not that test scores of poor students are what makes South Carolina averages low.
    The second myth you constantly repeat is that those of us that believe the current way of delivering education is fundamentally broken “haven’t the slightest interest in… articulating a bold vision of statewide interest” on how to deliver world class education.
    Many of us care passionately about high quality, universal, publicly funded education. We believe that our only real hope is to unleash the incredible creative potential in our educators. That will happen with one simple change in the way education is funded – the money we spend on education should follow the choices students and their parents make about the best educational option for each student.
    Here is a great example of what is possible from educational entrepreneurs: Most students are black. They are poor. And they are scholars. Taking this one step further, here’s how this innovative model could change the landscape of education in South Carolina:Calling all Educational Entrepreneurs – An Idea for a New Public School Model Serving Poor Children.
    It is very important to note that, “Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan ‘decided to build their own high school. This all makes perfect sense to Sutton and Dolan, who weren’t trained in a traditional college of education and don’t spend much time worrying about the way schools are supposed to operate.'” The best entrepreneurs often come from outside those who currently control the market.
    It is also very important to note that those who are invested in the status quo are incredibly resistant to change. “Wake schools Superintendent Bill McNeal quickly pointed out that any school with voluntary enrollment enjoys a big advantage… Durham Public Schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger questioned whether traditional schools could legally require teachers to work longer hours.” Market leaders almost never reform themselves without some significant, outside pressure to change. That is the crux of why the method of funding education has to change.
    Brad, let’s quit challenging each other’s motives, get our heads on straight, and get on with fundamental changes to education that can unleash the creativity of our educators so they can create the world class system our children deserve.

  3. Karen McLeod

    The state of our more rural public schools paints an ugly picture of our selfishness. However, I fear that the only way to get our state Legislature to effectively address this lack of parity in our public school system is to somehow mandate that after every election at least 15 of their children (more may be needed), chosen at random, will spend the parent’s term of office in the 3 poorest schools (transportation and boarding to be arranged). No further tutelage may be provided for these children during their stay in these institutions of least learning. Do ya’ think that might work?

  4. Brad Warthen

    Actually, Karen, a less dramatic way to achieve the same thing is to forbid all local funding, and require schools to get by on what they get from the state.
    John, there are so many arguments against the libertarian modeling for “fixing” public schools by ditching them, but since I sat down here to pay bills, write checks, and other stuff I hate (and most of them go to the private sector, of course, which bleeds me for a lot more than the public), and I’ve got to get back to them and don’t have time to have fun, let’s stick to one:
    I don’t want any money that might otherwise go to a public school to go to a school that is in no way accountable to me. You see — and this is the problem the voucher/tax-credit side has trouble understanding — the “customer” for the money we spend on education is not parents. Relatively few of the actual customers are parents. The customers are the taxpayers.

  5. John Warner

    It is a truly bizarre theory that the customer of the education system is not primarily the student.
    As you are writing those checks, you will notice that the places that you invariably get the worst service and the crappiest products are the places where you have no choice.
    This ain’t rocket science. Why you and others can’t translate your every day experience paying bills into the common sense approach to improving education escapes me.

  6. Herb Brasher

    Actually, Brad, I think the more accurate word, instead of customers, is “stakeholders.” And in the case of education, the stakes are high–the future of our country. Keep up the good work.

  7. Brad Warthen

    Actually, Herb, I don’t think any of us in this is a “customer” purchasing a product or service; we’re citizens working together to address a common concern.
    A lot of people think government should be run like a business. A lot of people (not necessarily the same ones, but there’s a good bit of overlap) like to refer to the people paying for and/or receiving the service are “customers.”
    I’m not sure why John thinks that if one is to apply such a model, the children would be the “customers?” The kids are the product, and if they receive the sort of education that shapes them into productive members of society, they are successful products — unlike the dropouts who get hauled off or just lie around on the production room floor. (Dehumanizing, yes — but so is the whole “customer” paradigm in this instance.)
    If we’re going to have such a paradigm, the children would be rightly seen as the raw material. Parents would be suppliers. The customer are the rest of us (the vast majority of those who pay for this); and we’re the ones to whom the end product needs to be satisfactory.

  8. Doug Ross

    From the SC Department of Education website, we can see how much is already being spent on schools (2006 statistics):
    Allendale H.S. : $9065
    Schools with similar students to Allendale High School: $8785
    Median High School in SC: $6792
    Now, some local schools considered some of the best in the state:
    Irmo High School: $7540
    Spring Valley High School: $6358
    AC Flora High School: $6802
    And some other local schools that have been rated Unsatisfactory:
    CA Johnson: $8893
    Eau Claire: $8421
    Lower Richland: $7274
    I guess the question is either:
    a) What evidence is there that more spending results in better achievement?
    b) What are we going to do to restore fairness to educational funding by taking money from Allendale and giving it to Spring Valley?

  9. Karen McLeod

    Now that you mention it, you might be right about that, but are you sure that the Legislature won’t find a way to cater to those who have the money to fund their campaigns unless some way if found to give them a real stake in improving the neglected schools? Or are you sure that those who have the money won’t lobby the legislature to ‘stack the deck’ in favor of the school their children go to rather than allowing some of their money to improve rural school instead of making their schools excellent?

  10. weldon VII

    I’m a resident of one of the counties who sued for parity in education funding.
    Our test scores are so low guessing the answer without reading the question would produce better results.
    But one of our better, more concerned teachers tells me the problem is mostly reading comprehension. Students who fail a test in written form usually pass it when asked the questions aloud.
    And our honor graduates, despite the wretched test-score average, put up impressive SAT numbers themselves.
    So some of the kids are getting a pretty good high-school education, but most aren’t.
    How could the problem be the school if that’s the case? Wouldn’t home environment have to be the problem? Doesn’t that point to pre-school education, teaching very young children how to learn when their parents don’t teach them, as the most likely way to improve results overall?
    And isn’t that exactly where Judge Cooper pointed?
    The child who leaves pre-school able to read winds up light years ahead of the kid who’s still trying to fathom reading in the second grade.
    The answer to all our education problems is simple: Children need to learn how to learn before reaching the grades known by numbers.
    It’s just so happen that’s also the cheapest solution to our school woes.
    We don’t really need better high schools. We really need practically univeral pre-schools.
    That would keep the customer satisfied. And the supplier, too.

  11. Ready to Hurl

    What evidence is there that more spending results in better achievement?

    The best argument against the libertarian approach to education is the cost of privately educating students now.
    Some time ago I estimated the actual cost of educating a Heathwood Hall student at around $!6,000+/year. And, these are students whose biggest challenges are what type of car their parents will buy for them and which college they’ll choose.
    For a better comparison, perhaps Brad would like to investigate the actual cost of educating a student in a Catholic school. Of course, he’d have to add replacing any church subsidies, especially the difference between the cost of labor provided by the Catholic Church and market labor costs.

  12. John Warner

    Re: Some of the kids are getting a pretty good high-school education, but most aren’t. How could the problem be the school if that’s the case?
    That assumption would fly, if everyone thought alike and learned alike, but there is a very broad spectrum of how people think and learn.
    One of the most fundamental problems with the way we deliver public education today is that we push everyone through basically the same system. If you match up well with that system, you do well. If you don’t match up well, you struggle, and without family support you drop out. Worst of all, the most influential people in the community are often those who did the best in school, so they don’t see why everyone can’t do well too like they did. They are certain the problem must be the student or the family or anything other than the school itself.
    If we have more choices in education, widely diverse children will find widely diverse educational alternatives that match more of their personal learning styles. We’ll see many more students being successful and coming closer to reaching their full potential

  13. Doug Ross

    Given an opportunity to create its own school choice program to counter the voucher movement, this is what the Department of Education and legislators came up with (from the Dept. of Ed website):
    Rex’s proposal calls for a three-year phase-in:
    Year 1 (staging year) – Rex would restructure the Education Department to create a new Office of Innovation and School Choice, and its first job would be a statewide inventory of existing choice options in public schools. Rex has been leading a series of town meetings across South Carolina to talk about additional program choices that might be made available to parents, including Montessori, single-gender and other options. A pilot project would pair up districts that already offer extensive curriculum and attendance choices – Rex specifically cited Richland District 2 in Columbia – with districts that do not. A second pilot would pair up adjacent districts to explore choice options across district lines. These projects would be used to estimate the costs involved and to resolve potentially complicated funding questions.
    Year 2 (in-district implementation year) – Every school district in South Carolina would design and adopt a public school choice plan that includes program options for students at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
    Year 3 (open enrollment year) – Open public school enrollment would be offered statewide, along with financial support for low-income parents who choose to transport their children across school or district attendance lines.
    What isn’t mentioned in the public relations piece is that the number of available slots is limited to one half of one percent of enrollment at schools that decide they have space available.
    This is government in “action” – form a committee, develop a plan, and implement the plan in a limited way. Each step takes a year to complete. A whole year. Because, uh, well, because that’s the only timeframe educrats can think in. You think private schools couldn’t open up slots THIS year?

  14. weldon VII

    Sure, choice would be nice, and in my part of the world, a charter school has come along to provide some choice, and, of course, we have a private school that offers choice to those who can afford it.
    But in my poor little town, we can’t afford much for choice, and I don’t really think ANY amount of funding from the state could make enough difference. We don’t have the numbers to warrant a plethora of schools.
    The only solution I see for our problems, other than better pre-school, is improved parents. That also would make my life easier. Got any suggestions?


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