In South Carolina, we keep talking about the wrong things

We always seem to be having the wrong conversations in South Carolina. Sometimes, we don’t even talk at all about the things that cry out for focused, urgent debate.
    Look at this joke of a commission that was assigned to examine whether the city of Columbia should ditch its ineffective, unaccountable, “don’t ask me” form of government. It was supposed to report something two years ago. And here we are, still waiting, with a city that can’t even close its books at the end of the year. Whether its that fiscal fiasco, or the failure to justify what it did with millions in special tax revenues, or the rehiring of a cop who was said to be found drunk, naked and armed in public, there is no one who works directly for the voters who has control over those things.
    But as bad as it is to have no one to blame, there is no one to look to for a vision of positive action. A city that says it wants to leap forward into the knowledge economy with Innovista really, really needs somebody accountable driving the process.
    Columbia needed a strong-mayor form of government yesterday, and what have we done? Sat around two years waiting for a panel that didn’t want to reach that conclusion to start with to come back and tell us so.
    It’s worse on the state level.
    What does South Carolina need? It needs to get up and off its duff and start catching up with the rest of the country. There are many elements involved in doing that, but one that everybody knows must be included is bringing up the level of educational achievement throughout our population.
    There are all sorts of obvious reforms that should be enacted immediately to improve our public schools. Just to name one that no one can mount a credible argument against, and which the Legislature could enact at any time it chooses, we need to eliminate waste and channel expertise by drastically reducing the number of school districts in the state.
    So each time the Legislature meets, it debates how to get that done, right? No way. For the last several years, every time any suggestion of any kind for improving our public schools has come up, the General Assembly has been paralyzed by a minority of lawmakers who say no, instead of fixing the public schools, let’s take funding away from them and give it to private schools — you know, the only kind of schools that we can’t possibly hold accountable.
    As long as we’re talking about money, take a look at what the most powerful man in the Legislature, Sen. Glenn McConnell, had to say on our op-ed page Friday (to read the full piece, follow the link):

    South Carolina can only have an orderly, predictable and consistent growth rate in state spending by constitutionally mandating it. It cannot be accomplished on a reliable basis by hanging onto slim majorities in the Legislature and having the right governor. The political pressures are too great unless there is a constitutional bridle on the process.

    The people of South Carolina elect 170 people to the Legislature. In this most legislative of states, those 170 people have complete power to do whatever they want with regard to taxing and spending, with one caveat — they are already prevented by the constitution from spending more than they take in.
But they could raise taxes, right? Only in theory. The State House is filled with people who’d rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than ever raise our taxes, whether it would be a good idea to do so or not.
    All of this is true, and of all those 170 people, there is no one with more power to affect the general course of legislation than Glenn McConnell.
    And yet he tells us that it’s impossible for him and his colleagues to prevent spending from getting out of hand.
    What’s he saying here? He’s saying that he’s afraid that the people of South Carolina may someday elect a majority of legislators who think they need to spend more than Glenn McConnell thinks we ought to spend. Therefore, we should take away the Legislature’s power to make that most fundamental of legislative decisions. We should rig the rules so that spending never exceeds an amount that he and those who agree with him prefer, even if most South Carolinians (and that, by the way, is what “political pressures” means — the will of the voters) disagree.
    Is there a problem with how the Legislature spends our money? You betcha. We don’t spend nearly enough on state troopers, prisons, roads or mental health services. And we spend too much on festivals and museums and various other sorts of folderol that help lawmakers get re-elected, but do little for the state overall.
    So let’s talk about that. Let’s have a conversation about the fact that South Carolinians aren’t as safe or healthy or well-educated as folks in other parts of the country because lawmakers choose to spend on the wrong things.
    But that’s not the kind of conversation we have at our State House. Instead, the people with the bulliest pulpits, from the governor to the most powerful man in the Senate, want most of all to make sure lawmakers spend less than they otherwise might, whether they spend wisely or not.
    The McConnell proposal would make sure that approach always wins all future arguments.
    For Sen. McConnell, this thing we call representative democracy is just a little too risky. Elections might produce people who disagree with him. And he’s just not willing to put up with that.

12 thoughts on “In South Carolina, we keep talking about the wrong things

  1. Randy E

    Brad, I will stick to my area of expertise, education. Last summer when we discussed the campaign for superintendent of education you admitted to focusing on choice as the primary issue. While there was some discussion on Staton’s reform platform and background, The State channeled the debate towards vouchers.
    Floyd ran ads stating our schools are the “worst in the country” but offered only two statistics, drop out rates and SAT scores (hardly representative of education as a whole). The State gave her a pass by not challenging the validity of this. Rex had a 5 point plan for which he had minimal detail. The State not only gave him a pass by not challenging him for details, by making the issue of choice the focal point he could run simply as the un-Floyd.
    Education is a function of the community and culture of the state. How exactly this plays out and what we can do in response is hardly addressed. Given that education is the foundation of a democratic society and is even more important in the Information Age of increased globalization, I question why it is reduced to a debate on choice. Even in Milwaukee, the Mecca of choice, this issue involves less than 1/5 of the student population.
    Only one candidate in any campaign linked community and education – Campbell. His position is that we have to help the poorest communities to help the schools in these communities. Sadly, this was a voice from the desert and we’ll continue to lament the state of our schools as long as we continue to simplify the problem as The State has.

  2. John Warner

    Brad and Randy
    We can’t make progress on reforming universal, publicly funded education in South Carolina as long as we drag our feet on real reform.
    Incremental improvements to the status quo which you advocate won’t get us to the world class education system that our children deserve and the global economy we operate in demands.
    We constantly make excuses for the system we have. Randy, SAT scores are relevant because they demonstrate that our education system doesn’t work well for the top or the bottom. The better educated a typical SC student’s parents are, the bigger the gap in SAT scores with that student’s peers across the county.
    As Bill Gates said, not only is the education system broken, which it is, even if it worked as designed it is obsolete and not delivering the education our children need to be successful. We won’t have world class education in South Carolina until we have a system where educators can offer innovative alternatives to students not well served today, and parents have the choice to pick the best educational option for their children.
    Ya’ll get hung up on funding, when what we need to focus on is how to create an innovative culture that empowers educators to deliver results.

  3. Doug T

    With a legislature that still works under the shadow of a confederate flag, with a leader who gets his kicks dressing up as a confederate soldier, what do you expect?
    To get to work I must pass through 3 counties along the “Corridor of Shame”. Nevermind the school situation…it’s the row after row of Payday loan offices that tells the story of a very wide swath of South Carolina.
    This may prevent my note from getting posted, but the racism and class separation that is exhibited by the Republican majority will hold back this state until that generation dies off. Maybe the next generation will spend more attention to the plight of the poor instead of sinking a fortune into preserving an old submarine.

  4. Brad Warthen

    John, it is EXTREMELY dishonest, and typical of the kind of argument mounted by people who hate public education, to accuse people who want true, deep reform — rather than fatalistic abandonment, which is what the voucher people want — of wanting “Incremental improvements to the status quo.”
    Nothing I have ever written gives you the slightest excuse to accuse me of that. I WANT innovation in the schools — you (if you are allied with the people I am criticizing) — want to be relieved of the burden of supporting public schools, reformed or unreformed, for the simple reason that public education happens to be the most expensive thing state government does, and you want less public spending. (Again, I say “you” if you are allied with the people who torpedo every effort to reform education with their voucher and tax credit amendments).
    I want school consolidation, which the “reformers” you seem to side with don’t have the guts to fight for. I want principals to be empowered to hire, fire and innovate without interference. I want all funding to come from the state, to eliminate the inequity between rich districts and poor districts that we have with the property tax. I want merit pay, so we can reward the teachers who are getting the job done.
    The voucher and tax credit people don’t want to do ANYTHING to improve the schools. They have no interest in the schools. Suggest anything to improve schools, and they immediately smother it with their proposal to pay people to ABANDON the schools.
    It really doesn’t matter how many times you claim the opposite to be true, abandonment isn’t reform in any sense of the word. Never has been; never will be.

  5. Brad Warthen

    And Randy, I don’t know why we had so much trouble communicating over the points you raise. I was dealing with these people and talking to them in detail, and I knew for a fact that in a campaign in which the very existence of public schools was threatened, the details faded into insignificance.
    You know how close the vote was. If the people who understood what a destructive force Mrs. Floyd would have been had neglected to make that very, very clear, she would have been elected. And then you’d have something else to criticize me for.
    Once again, if the people who supported her had ANY interest in reforming public education, we could get a lot of remarkable things done. But as long as those people greet any conversation about reform with their mantra of “let’s give up on the very idea of public schools,” we’re not going to get anywhere.

  6. Doug Ross

    So what has Jim Rex done besides stop vouchers? Where is the innovation? Where is the reform? It’s nearly a year since the election and aside from a phony school choice plan, there’s been zip. A lot of
    public relations, but nothing related to public education.
    The anti-choice crowd got who they wanted. Is there any sign that there will be improvement in our schools in the next three years?
    All I see is overcrowded schools in Richland 2 because there isn’t a single person in power willing to take a stand on slowing growth. I know for a fact (having talked to parents with kids at his school) that Randy’s school is like my kid’s high school – forced to hire teachers who do not even speak English as a primary language to teach core subjects like math and science. If it’s that bad in Richland 2, I can’t imagine what it’s like in the bad counties.
    And, Randy, if you want equity between the haves and have nots, does that mean you want the better schools to drop in quality or do you just want to raise taxes even more on the haves to pay for the have nots? You know as well as I do that counties like Richland 2 will fight for every last nickel.
    I do agree with Randy’s objectives but I am more realistic in recognizing that there isn’t anyone in a position to make a difference who wants to. I mean, let’s be serious – all Lexington board members care about is bonds to build more schools to fatten the wallets of construction companies and to keep the sprawl going. And Richland 2 has had a majority of its board in place for between 14 and 18 years… whistling past the graveyard as the schools continue to approach mediocrity.
    Kepp fighting vouchers. It’s the best way to keep the status quo.

  7. Brad Warthen

    Doug, you almost get it, but not quite.
    Yes, constantly fighting over vouchers instead of actual reform is the best way to be mired in the status quo. So what you need to do is go speak to the voucher people, who will not allow ANYTHING education-related to come up in the General Assembly without hijacking it and turning into an existential struggle over the only question that seems to interest THEM — whether we will have public schools or not.
    As soon as they stop doing that, it will become possible to pass reforms.

  8. Gordon Hirsch

    With all due respect to the mechanics in the house, isn’t reform in education or elsewhere as much about changing ourselves as changing governmental structure?
    Politics is about power, and who will wield it. Power follows money and the people who control it (taxation, contributions, and spending). The art of politics involves staying in power, even if that means changing the system (or not changing it) to suit the needs of politicians. In addition to keeping on the majority side of current issues, staying in power also necessitates continuous campaign fund-raising, which is provided by the wealthy, for the most part, with contributor expectations.
    But we can’t blame the “system” purely on politicians. Self-interest drives and shapes us all, with some saintly exceptions, although cynics may argue sainthood is self-serving, too. For most people, it’s hard to care about the plights of others until their own basic needs (and agendas) have been at least recognized. That means we elect people who, we hope, will advance our current expectations. And that means politicians reflect our values. In the electoral process, if one contributes sufficient money to a politician, one’s expectations of that politician are elevated. If a politician receives sufficiently from an individual or group, the contributor’s expectations take on greater importance in “the political process.” If that’s not what we intend, why do we keep electing people who are willing to play by these rules, or tolerate their continued presence in “our” government?
    Because, for the most part, expectations of rich and poor alike are based on perceptions of economic opportunity, which is the means by which we have come to measure attainment of personal “success,” from which all else seems to flow. Somewhere along the way, achieving that success became an “equal opportunity” prospect, a seemingly necessary step toward attainment of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Somehow in our lifetime, average household incomes have became synonymous with poverty, and we wondered out loud at “how they survive.” Our children emulate Paris Hilton, gangsta millionaires, and overpaid sports celebs with the morals of their agents.
    Enter reality: in economics and politics, equal opportunity is a myth. For opportunity to be truly equal, we all must start from the same station in life. The same parents. The same financial history. The same educational environment. The same everything, by definition, for us all to be truly equal. The child of unemployed parents from a rural county must have the same advantages, and disadvantages, as the child of a governor whose children are chauffeured to private school.
    Since most of these things cannot be changed, deployment of “equal opportunity” programming in government is actually about leveling the socio-economic playing field, which implies a greater redistribution of wealth overall — for education, for jobs, healthcare, etc., which flies in the face of voter and political self-interest, no matter our proclamations of democracy in action. Yes, we may understand that everyone could benefit in the long term. But our own interests, and government, are short-sighted by nature. Pollsters shape the issues. We elect the governor who supports private schools because he makes other attractive promises. We attack the very notion of redistribution as socialist or communist. We rail against public education, social programs and affirmative action, not because they help the deserving, but because it is so easy to inflame our selfish sensibilities with tales of abuse. Which puts the focus back on our needs, and the well-funded special interest groups. To hell with those who can’t afford a lobbyist or PAC.
    For example, in South Carolina, what we call public education is more parochial than not. Wikpedia defines parochialism as “being provincial, being narrow in scope, or considering only small sections of an issue … focused on the local scale (thus within a particular point of view), by having (too) little contact with the broader outside, showing meagre interest for and possibly knowledge about the universal scale. … Parochialism relates directly to culture and economics in regards to a local culture or geographic area’s government making decisions based on personal relationships instead of uniformity. This supports and/or leads to governmental corruption and deters real economic health and outside investment. Parochialism reinforces an insular society and economy, many times to the detriment of the citizens who are the willful victims of parochialism, their local prejudices and regional attitudes played upon by politicians of all colours.”
    In other words, it’s selfish and dishonest. Sound familiar? Were it not so, the child in Williamsburg County would enjoy the same quality of publicly-funded opportunities as in Lexington County. We would be past debates of private versus public schools, vouchers, and the thinly veiled trend toward a return of segregation academies.
    In government, the best we can hope for is greater checks and balances against self-interest, both our own and the politicians who represent us. Term limits, campaign spending caps, balanced budgets, curbs on lobbying, continuity of public funding across economically diverse geographic regions, unwavering commitment to investment in quality public education nationwide, tax breaks for the rich, moral opposition to immoral economic uses of our military, these are guiding issues that can change the way we live, think, and how government works. Keep electing people who don’t believe in change, or make it happen, and we get what we deserve.
    Otherwise, we’ll just have to wait for worldwide spiritual enlightment. Or, to quote the Dali Lama, which I can’t believe I’m actually doing, “A biased mind never sees the complete picture, and any action that results will not be in tune with reality.”
    We made this reality. Changing it starts with the way we think and who we choose to represent us.

  9. Doug Ross

    > As soon as they stop doing that, it will
    > become possible to pass reforms.
    So what was everyone doing to reform education before they had the “big bad voucher” boogeyman to use as an excuse?
    It wasn’t like the schools were on a track of continuous improvement before that.
    A red herring. That’s all it is. Nothing is stopping reform from happening other than nobody wanting to do it.

  10. Brad Warthen

    Well, let’s see — JUST before that, we were working our butts off getting accountability launched in South Carolina, and putting it out ahead of the nation on that score, in spite of the tidal wave of opposition we got from the education establishment. And we were pushing for a lot of the things we’re pushing for now: Consolidate districts, put S.C. superintendent under the governor, etc.
    I was about to answer you flippantly, Doug, but then it hit me — some of your libertarian pals REALLY DON’T KNOW the answer to the question you raise. You know why? Because they only pay attention to public education when there’s a chance to dismantle it completely. That’s why their ears perk up when vouchers and tax credits are mentioned, and not until then.

  11. Doug Ross

    What accountability? Do you mean PACT testing? PACT’s been around for nearly a decade and and a parent of three kids who experienced it firsthand, I can tell you there was ZERO accountability in that sham.
    Can you provide one example of public school accountability that happened since 1990? How many teachers have been fired for poor performance? How many schools have been taken over by the state (and been improved)? How many illiterate kids have been passed along to high school even though this supposed accountability system has been in place? Tell me, Brad, what has PACT done to improve education in South Carolina?
    When the numbers come out badly (like this past year), the educrats blame the test or blame the
    I can tell you that PACT has cost students more days of education than the educrats will admit to. My 8th grade son had no schoolwork in the week before PACT, the two weeks during PACT, and the week after PACT
    this past May. Do you want more of that?
    Your anti-voucher pals also are scared to death of even trying vouchers… no pilots, no income limits, nothing — because if it works, you’re doomed. The only kids who suffer are the ones who are on the fast track to educational ruin. And that’s what will continue to happen as another generation of students gets trapped in a system that cannot work. Meanwhile, Jim Rex and the educational bureaucracy can try any pilot that their high paid consultants can come up with… claim success, get more funding, and run for re-election.
    I realize your argument fails miserably if you have to address specifics – that’s why you have to keep it at the 50,000 foot pie-in-the-sky, “we owe it to the children” level. But go take a tour of some of our local schools and tell me there’s hope for progress. Tell me all it will take is millions of dollars more money and a can-do spirit.
    Can you answer the questions – has PACT done anything to improve education? How much more money do you think it will take to provide an educational system that doesn’t have a 30-40% dropout rate? What has Jim Rex done to improve education in the past year?

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