Education Reform in South Carolina

Education Reform in South Carolina

The May 2019 GPP membership meeting considered education reform in South Carolina with a panel discussion at East North Street Academy, facilitated by Derek Lewis, who is both a member of GPP and the Greenville County Schools Board of Trustees.

In January 2019 when South Carolina Speaker of the House Jay Lucas released his proposal for overhauling public education in the state, he was quoted by the Post and Courier as telling his opponents, “If you’re satisfied with the status quo, then I would urge them to oppose the bill, but if you think South Carolina can do bigger and better things in public education and workforce development, then let’s try to be big and bold and hit a home run with this legislation.”

Speaker Lucas’s “aim for the bleachers” approach resulted in HB3759, which was indeed full of big and bold ideas.  It moved through the House at lightning speed, according to Chuck Saylors, Chairman of the Greenville County Schools Board of Trustees.  The enthusiasm house members showed for it didn’t allow for time during the legislative session to deliberate over which pieces of policy are best for students and schools all over the state, and it was partially indicative of the fact that all representatives are up for election in 2020 and wanted their support for education policy on the record.

Regardless of the motive, said Ansel Sanders, Executive Director of Public Education Partners (PEP), “We haven’t seen this much momentum in education policy in the state in thirty years, so we want to strike while the iron is hot but to also be deliberate and fold a community voice in the process.”

The legislature adjourned for the year in early May without the Senate voting on its companion bill, but Chuck, Ansel, and Derek believe this is a good thing.  January 2020 will begin the second year of this two-year legislative session, and this allows time for the education subcommittee, district personnel, and community advocates to consider more thoroughly how to handle things in the bill, such as scrutinizing current policies like Read to Succeed (which advocates believe is too little too late), how to balance ensuring that local leaders can make local decisions while looking for economies of scale by consolidating districts with fewer students than just one Greenville County High School, and considering the items in the “teachers’ bill of rights” included in the house bill.

Suzanne Billings, Greenville County Schools Teacher of the Year, spoke about her experience advocating through the SC Red for Ed movement.  She said that teachers have previously been uncertain about their ability to be involved in advocacy, whether it’s writing or calling their legislators or participating in rallies.  She and her colleagues weren’t sure if it was allowed or if it was professional.  But for this year’s activities, which culminated on May 8th with a 10,000 person Red for Ed rally in Columbia, the message was clear, the ways to participate were well communicated, and teachers knew they had the backing of Greenville County Schools, Public Education Partners, and many parents and community members.  Suzanne said, “Having the community’s support gave credibility to our voices.”

The most important voices in the process, said Ansel, are those of teachers.  PEP has advocated for increasing teacher pay and elevating the profession of teacher.  He noted that on a recent trip organized by PEP to study the educational system in Finland, the team of Greenville leaders learned how teachers in Finland have the respect and financial compensation of professionals such as physicians in the United States.  Ansel acknowledged that while there are many differences between the cultures and economies of Finland and the US, we can elevate the profession to honor teachers in the way we do military personnel.

Chuck noted that the fiscal items proposed during the legislative session (which were separate from the regulatory items) made it in the budget approved this spring.  This included raising teacher salaries and allowing for more unencumbered planning time in a teacher’s day.  However, Greenville County Schools already pays higher than what the state’s minimum starting salary has been.  Nonetheless, the district will raise the starting teacher salary from $35,000 to $40,000, and all other salaries (including those of staff such as custodians, food service personnel, and other non-classroom employees) will increase proportionally.

Derek asked the panelists how philanthropy can be supportive of education and education reform.  Ansel said that philanthropy can really step in on the equity question.  Schools are so different from each other – not just in their culture and student needs but also in the resources available to them based on their Title I status and fundraising capacity of the PTA in their support.

Bob Morris with the Community Foundation of Greenville said how he’d appreciate the district’s openness to partnerships, with OnTrack Greenville as one example.  Ansel agreed, and said that philanthropic investment can be “both/and”:  supporting things that we know work well in the classroom and to create change at the systems level in the state.