You know, I sort of damned the good news about the growing DHEC consensus with unfairly faint praise earlier today. (Or darned it, at the very least.)
I need to start looking more at the bright side. I don't spend enough time looking at things that way these days. We're all so overwhelmed by the economic situation — and if you are in the newspaper business, you are steeped in it (nothing is more sensitive to a slowing economy than an already-troubled industry that is built on advertising revenues). It's very easy to dwell on such facts as this one that has stuck in my head since last week: That not only did the U.S. economy lose 2.5 million jobs in 2008, the worst since 1945, but 524,000 of those jobs lost were in December alone. To do the math for you, if the whole year had been as bad as the last month, the total would have been over 6.29 million. And there's no particular reason to think January won't be worse than December.
I'm not a big Paul Krugman fan, but stats like that make me worry that he was right in his column, which we ran on Sunday, saying that the Barack Obama stimulus plan, overwhelming huge as it is, won't be nearly big enough.
And these are not cheery thoughts. Nor is it cheery to reflect, as I did in my Sunday column, about how resistant policy makers in South Carolina are to policies that make sense — even the more obvious policies, such as increasing the cigarette tax to the national average, or restructuring government to increase accountability, or comprehensive tax reform.
That's what we do in this business. We harp. Year in, year out. We can be tiresome. We can, as I suggested Sunday, get tired of it ourselves. But little victories such as this emerging consensus on DHEC, or the signs that we saw last year that even some of the stauncher opponents of restructuring in the Black Caucus are coming around on the issue (which is a real sea change) are worth celebrating, and encouraging — like putting extra oxygen on an ember.
So it is that I applaud Cindi today for, instead of doing her usual thing of mocking the stupider ideas among the prefiled bills, giving a boost to the better ideas. There were some good ones on her list.
In fact, I was inspired to do a little followup on one of them:
school districts with fewer than 10,000 students, in an attempt to make
inefficient little districts merge.
Now that's the beginning of a good idea. Like most obviously good ideas, it isn't new. We've been pushing for school district consolidation as long as we've been pushing restructuring and comprehensive tax reform, etc., and with even less success. Everybody says they're for it in the abstract; no one lifts a finger to make it happen. Even Mark Sanford gives lip service to it (but won't work to make it happen, preferring to waste his energy on ideological dead-ends such as vouchers).
So it's encouraging that Ted Pitts and Joan Brady (and Bill Wylie and Dan Hamilton) want to at least set a starting place — a numerical threshold, a line that the state can draw and say, "We won't waste precious resources paying to run districts smaller than this."
Mind you, I'm not sure it's the RIGHT threshold. I've always thought that the most logical goal should get us down from the 85 districts we have now to about one per county — which would be 46. The 10,000 student threshold overshoots that goal, as I discovered today. I asked Jim Foster over at the state department of ed to give me a list of the sizes of districts. The latest list that he had handy that had districts ranked was this spreadsheet
(see the "TABLE 1-N" tab), which showed that as of 2006, only 18 districts in the state had more than 10,000 pupils. One of those — Kershaw County — has since risen over the magic mark, so that makes it 19.
Maybe we should have only 19 districts in the state, although I worry that a district that had to aggregate multiple counties to be big enough might be a little unwieldy.
But hey, it's a starting point for discussion on an actual reform that would help us eliminate ACTUAL waste in our education system, and provide more professional direction to some of our most troubled schools (which tend to be in those rural districts that just aren't big enough to BE districts to start with).
So way to go, Ted and Joan (and Bill and Dan).
I was particularly struck that Ted was willing to put forth an idea that would have an impact in his own county (although perhaps not, I suspected, in his actual district). That's the standard reason why district consolidation gets nowhere — lawmakers balk at messing with their home folks districts, because voters tend to be about this the way they are about other things; a reform is great until if affects them.
I suspected, and Jim's spreadsheet confirmed, that while Lexington 1 and District 5 were big enough to retain state funding under this proposal, Lexington 3 and 4 were not. More than that, Lexington 2 falls below the threshold, and at least part of Ted's district is in Lexington 2. (Unless I'm very mistaken. Ted is MY House member, and my children all attended Lexington 2 schools.) As for Joan Brady — I think her district would be unaffected, as Richland 1 and 2 would be untouched (even though they shouldn't be — they should be merged). But I still applaud her involvement.
Anyway, way to get the ball rolling on this, folks. Let's keep talking about this one.