South Carolina House passes massive education overhaul bill
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House on Wednesday approved a massive bill overhauling education in the state. But any revamping of the education system stills has a long road in the General Assembly.
Earlier Wednesday, a group of senators made their first changes to the proposal, indicating there will be plenty of back-and-forth even if the bill makes it to Gov. Henry McMaster's desk before the end of the session in May.
The House voted 113-4 to approve the bill after six hours of debate Wednesday.
The House's lengthy bill raises the minimum starting teacher pay to $35,000, gives the state education superintendent more ability to take over low-performing school districts and creates a $100 million fund to help bring businesses to places where schools are poor and struggling.
A proposal to put $159 million toward raises for almost all teachers is in the proposed budget the House will soon debate.
Some Democrats proposed several changes in the House during Wednesday's debate, but almost all were rejected. They included providing free school lunches for all students in the state and requiring a teaching assistant to be added to any class in kindergarten through third grade with more than 15 students in a low performing school. Republicans said the class size issue would be taken up in the budget.
Democrats also wanted to add language to the bill saying the state had to require a high-quality education possible instead of the minimally adequate education the state Supreme Court ruled is guaranteed in South Carolina's constitution. They lost that vote too.
"We may not entirely agree on this legislation, but we need to get on with it for the students and the teachers of this state," said Rep. Rita Allison, a Republican from Lyman and chairwoman of the House Education Committee.
Democrats did get one teacher-backed proposal into the bill. A guaranteed 30-minute break away from students each day was put in the proposal after Republicans initially rejected it. House members also added a proposal to give an income tax break worth the value of the property taxes of their homes to teachers who live and work in the state's 12 poorest and most rural counties.
Rep. Wendy Brawley said the state needed to take this rare opportunity where everyone agreed something needed to be done to do more for students from the poorest families.
"This bill not only touches this generation but future generations," the Democrat from Hopkins said.
Rep. Neal Collins opened the debate asking members to stand and then sit down as he recounted South Carolina's poor education performance. Just two-thirds of children are ready for kindergarten when they start. Only 55 percent of third graders are reading on grade level. And ACT scores in South Carolina are 18th of the 19 states whose juniors almost all take the test, the Republican from Easley said.
The Senate introduced its own bill, identical to the House version until Wednesday's vote by a subcommittee that removed both a proposed Student Bill of Rights and the Zero to Twenty Committee, which was meant to oversee education from pre-kindergarten to technical colleges. The House bill kept the committee, but renamed it the Special Council on Revitalizing Education, pointing out the acronym was SCORE.
The bill of rights is a good idea, but could open officials to lawsuits by calling them rights, said Sen. Greg Hembree, the subcommittee chairman.
The Zero to Twenty Committee is unnecessary because it duplicates other things being done in the education system, the Republican from Little River said.
The Senate subcommittee will hold three more hearings on the bill in Georgetown, Hartsville, and Gaffney before likely sending its version of the bill to the full Senate Education Committee.
Several Republicans said the House bill isn't perfect, but South Carolina needs to do something soon before businesses begin to shun the state because of its poor schools.
"I believe in what we are about to do — or could do," said Rep. Jay West, a Republican from Belton.