Originally created 02/05/01

State on track with Bush plan



AIKEN - South Carolina should have an easier time than most states falling in line with the president's plan for school reform, a national survey shows.

The Palmetto State already does most of the things President Bush says will eventually put a better face on public education. A newly published scorecard shows about 80 percent of the president's proposals are already part of South Carolina's school improvement agenda.

Mr. Bush wants states to test pupils in grades three through eight every year in reading and math - something South Carolina has done for years. Georgia tests pupils only in grades three through six and again in the eighth.

And the president wants districts to adopt rigorous science standards. South Carolina is one of 19 states that routinely get an A or B from national education groups. Georgia is not. It falls in the same category with most other Southern states, which score a D or below.

The Education Commission of the States, which tracks school policies nationwide, collected a 50-state comparison and released the results late last week. The findings are supposed to "paint a picture" for states that are curious about how they measure up to Mr. Bush's proposals. South Carolina's results are promising.

"We're saying, `Here's the federal plan. And here's how far along states are without any nudging,"' spokeswoman Kathy Christie said.

State lawmakers prodded education officials in 1998 when they passed a controversial bill that ties funding to pupil performance. Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes signed a similar bill last year. Schools that do well are rewarded; those that do poorly are penalized. And that's just what Mr. Bush says all states should do.

Many people associated with South Carolina's school reform movement weren't surprised by the state's stellar showing. Nor is it any accident that South Carolina's accountability efforts are almost identical to those in Texas, where Mr. Bush was governor before becoming president, they said.

In 1999, state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum led a team of teachers and community leaders to Texas as part of her review of what worked in other states. For its efforts, South Carolina got a rare mention in the latest edition of Education Week magazine.

"Getting in sync with the president's proposal's won't require a lot of sweat on our part," state education spokesman Jim Foster said. "All the pieces are already in place."

But some of those pieces didn't get mentioned in the Education Commission's report, such as legislative efforts to reward teachers who are nationally certified. Those who are in South Carolina get paid an extra $7,500 for 10 years. Georgia also rewards its nationally certified teachers with financial incentives.

South Carolina also didn't get credit for a policy that says school districts must make public how well pupils do on standardized test. Most states follow suit, but South Carolina and Georgia are two of only a handful that break down results into gender, race, and economic status.

Other things South Carolina already does that Mr. Bush wants every state to do:

It's one of 10 states that report teacher attendance. Georgia doesn't.

It's one of 11 states that expel disruptive pupils and offer them a spot in an alternative school. Georgia is not on that list, although some districts have alternative schools.

It's one of 16 states that report school crime statistics, discipline and safety issues. Georgia does not compile a school crime report at the state level, the Education Commission said.

Frank Roberson, who helped write Aiken County's accountability plan, which later became a model for the rest of the state, said of the commission's report: "It says we want to eliminate the image that South Carolina is stuck in the scholastic cellar. And it says we're serious about education again."

Before the Education Accountability Act went into effect a little more than two years ago, the last time the state got serious about education was during the Riley administration, Dr. Roberson said. Then-Gov. Richard Riley - who later became U.S. secretary of education - signed into law the Education Improvement Act, a 1-cent sales tax increase that was supposed to be the long-awaited cure for low test scores. But the cure never worked.

Renewed interest in improving education is encouraging, Dr. Roberson said: "It's reassuring to know that the entire state, and not just a handful of districts, is on the move."

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.