FLORENCE, S.C. – The hottest topics in Columbia over the past several years have been roads and the state’s failing pension system, while fixes for failing education standards in low-income, mostly rural areas seem to have taken the back burner.
While a gas tax increase and $150 million toward shoring up the pension fund remained out front, lawmakers included money for K-12 education as well.
The state House and Senate added money for public school building maintenance and repairs. The House wanted $100 million, while the Senate had $46 million in its budget.
The conference committee settled on $55 million for repairs at schools in low-income areas of the state, and $28.9 million for new school buses.
There are also increases in funding under the state Education Finance Act, bringing the per-pupil spending allocation up by $75 to $2,425 per student. Last year that number was increased by $130 per student.
The per-pupil spending amount recommended by the state law is $2,984 per student.
Gov. Henry McMaster has been fairly reticent on education, but he told the Morning News that more money isn’t necessarily the answer.
“There are a lot of good ideas from charter schools to magnet schools, and others. We probably need to combine some of our school districts as well,” he said. “There are innovative ideas that are out there and we need to pursue them vigorously. Money is not always the answer.”
Earlier this year, McMaster showed support for several bills that would change the state Constitution to end popular election of the state superintendent of education and instead make the job a cabinet position.
“This historic measure will bring accountability and unity of vision to how South Carolina's children are educated,” McMaster said in a Facebook post at the time.That measure stalled in the Senate and was tabled for discussion at a later time.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh K. Leatherman Sr., a Florence Republican and the state’s head budget writer, said education fixes for the state won’t come overnight but funding to poor districts is a good start.
“We put in money for the districts named in the Abbeville suit and we increased the per-student spending,” he said. “We’re trying to address those issues. It’s something we’re going to have to keep looking at.”
More than three years ago the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to improve poor, rural school districts, arguing that decades of neglect had prevented students in those schools from getting a good education.
Rep. Jay Jordan of Florence said there were no major changes to the funding mechanisms for education this year, rather a focus on more funding. “Education is a lot like medicine; the better it gets the more expensive it gets,” he said. “Technology is expensive and its critical to move our education system forward.”
At former Gov. Nikki Haley’s urging last year, the state allocated about $30 million over three years to school districts to buy more computers and tablets, and to improve internet connectivity. That spending was cut to $12 million for the budget year starting July 1.
Gov. McMaster has yet to approve the compromised budget and hasn’t announced what he will veto, if anything.