DILLON, S.C. - Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, a little more than a month on the job, is taking to the road for a series of meetings to talk with folks about the challenges facing education in South Carolina.
Mr. Rex recently toured schools in rural Dillon County and then held his first Town Hall session in Myrtle Beach. He talked about his plans for innovation, more choices in public education, revisions in accountability and rejuvenating the teaching profession. While on the bus, he sat down with The Associated Press. Some excerpts:
Q: What would you say is the biggest challenge of the five parts of the plan?
A: The funding. I can push and pull and prod and play a role in some of those others. The Legislature is going to have to do the funding, and that's the tough one. It's tough politically and that's why it hasn't happened. That's why we need broad-based public support to show South Carolinians are not going to be selfish - that they are not going to have a narrow focus just on their own backyards.
Q: How do you deal with that, that many lawmakers are narrowly focused, dealing with getting re-elected in two years and not about the bigger picture?
A: Not just me but others with similar views are going to have to talk to their constituents and get them to talk to their legislators. We have some very small special interest groups in our state that are very well funded ... that are letting their views be known to these legislators. If the majority starts to understand what the state is faced with and start to talk to legislators, then I think we will see some change. You know the cartoon character Pogo? One of his great quotes was, "I believe we're being outnumbered by the minority." That's the way it seems sometimes.
Q: What can be done to help rural schools?
A: Comprehensive tax reform has to be the first priority. The second priority has to be some pooled resources at the state level. I'm not saying we have to take away from the school districts that have more adequate resources. And the funding has to be attached to the child so we get away from this disparity we create by the over-reliance on property taxes.
Q: You have mentioned the whole state has to buy in to helping rural districts. It seems that would be a big challenge.
A: Part of the answer is it's not just helping the rural districts. It's also helping the high growth districts, the districts that can't keep up with their expanding population. Even our best schools are not good enough for the 21st century. Some of the rural districts have special needs, but so do some of our urban districts.
Q: What about retirees flocking to the coast who have no stake in education or feel they have no stake in it?
A: That's the challenge - to make them realize they do have a stake in it. I said to a group a couple of weeks ago that I know you came to our state because you love our culture, because you love our environment, because you love our beaches. I'm only going to ask you to love one other thing: Love our children.
Q: When we have a hurricane, a lot of people don't plan and they leave it to the government to kind of figure it out. Is that an analogy you would subscribe to as reflecting education?
A: People do have busy lives and they seem to get busier all the time. That's where leadership comes in. You have to give people a vision or at least a plan they can agree to or not agree to.