Originally created 03/07/03

Budget cuts put South Carolina school improvements at risk



SOUTH CAROLINA'S 30-point SAT improvement over the past four years is the nation's best. College Board Vice President Lee Fails says that no state with an SAT student participation rate as high as ours has made as much progress in so short a time.

This improvement was no accident. It resulted from years of hard work by teachers and students, and also from carefully targeted investments by our state. There have been rigorous new training programs to help teachers align what they teach in class with the state's new academic standards; free practice PSATs for every tenth-grader paid for by funds from the legislature; a statewide high school SAT competition; and a partnership between the College Board and the South Carolina State Department that offers specialized SAT preparation materials for students and training for educators.

Today, however, there are dark clouds looming over this success story. Some of the initiatives that helped to produce our SAT gains are faced with severe reductions and possible elimination due to the state's ongoing budget cuts.

Across the state, South Carolina's K-12 schools have absorbed five mid-year budget cuts since May 2001, and next year's budget may be nearly a quarter-billion dollars less than the budget from just two years ago. It's true educators have worked wonders in stretching to get the most from every dollar. But as one budget cut after another has slammed home, schools have been forced to make choices with the certain knowledge that children - and also academic achievement - would be hurt.

FOR EXAMPLE, Berkley County drastically scaled back its successful LEAP summer remedial program. This summer, 1,000 academically struggling students who need that extra help won't get it.

Lexington District 2 eliminated its elementary school foreign language program. Chester County lowered the temperatures in its schools to save on heating costs while asking parents to make certain that children were dressed warmly for class.

Sumter District 2 eliminated 80 positions, including 60 classroom teachers. A number of athletic programs also were eliminated.

In this year alone, the state's Base Student Cost, the fundamental building block of K-12 funding, has been cut from $2,033 to $1,775. Unless the General Assembly appropriates new funds, next year's BSC could dip as low as $1,643 - the same level where schools were funded during the mid-1990s. As a result, local governments will once again be pressured to raise local property taxes to offset state cuts.

TODAY, IN ORDER to meet the mandates of sweeping new education laws passed by the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress, our schools must excel. But instead of thriving, many schools are barely surviving. Just last week, the General Assembly began entertaining the possibility of allowing local districts to cancel mandatory student instructional days and furlough teachers if there were no other way to make ends meet.

What does "survival mode" mean? It means a far greater focus on paying bills than on nurturing academic excellence. It means eliminating remedial classes for struggling students as well as gifted classes for especially talented ones. It means less research on effective teaching practices. It means less teacher training. It means greater numbers of promising young people leaving the teaching profession altogether, and fewer considering it as a career.

Educators realize that schools aren't alone in South Carolina's current budget crisis. Other agencies - many of them serving children - are also in dire straits. That is why now, more than ever, there's an overwhelming need for South Carolina to go "back to the basics" of funding. Now, more than ever, we must specify our state's goals and figure out how to pay for the process of reaching them.

Historically, South Carolina has done well at the first job and poorly at the second. With schools, we have a history of eagerness when it comes to ordering from the "education menu," but when the bill arrives we don't look for our wallets. We look for the exit. And as we skip out on the bill and force layoffs to the kitchen staff, we complain about the quality of the food.

THE CONTINUING DRACONIAN cuts to South Carolina's schools are simply incompatible with the lofty goals we have set for them. If we are serious about a vision of academic excellence for those schools - and if we are serious about leaving no child behind - then we must develop a truly comprehensive statewide plan to fund our K-12 schools, and to fund them adequately and equitably.

(Editor's note: The writer is the state superintendent of education for South Carolina.)