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Biden Notches Decisive Win in South Carolina Primary, as Lawmakers Edge Towards State Education Overhaul

By Kevin Mahnken | February 26, 2020

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March 2 Update: Joe Biden notched a decisive win in the South Carolina presidential primary on Saturday, winning nearly half of all votes cast and beating second-place finisher Bernie Sanders by over 28 points. The victory was driven by a massive increase in voter turnout, which came close to Barack Obama’s record-setting mark in 2008. Left without a feasible path to winning the party’s nomination, billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer ended his bid Saturday night, while Iowa caucus winner Pete Buttigieg did the same on Sunday.

South Carolina legislators also drew closer to completing their year-long effort to overhaul the state’s education system late last week. On Thursday, Senate Republicans voted to limit further debate on the pending education reform bill, which has stalled for the first six weeks of the legislative session. Local observers say that makes the legislation likely to pass in the coming days.

On May 1, 2019, thousands of South Carolina educators flooded their state capital in red droves, walking out of classrooms to demand pay raises and additional resources for public schools. Undertaken amid months-long negotiations around the legislature’s far-reaching education reform bill, the “Day of Reflection” drew levels of public coordination and participation that one expert deemed “unprecedented” in the state’s history.

The demonstration, reminiscent of the previous year’s “Red for Ed” strike wave, made political waves quickly, with several candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination eagerly chiming in. Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker all tweeted their support for the striking teachers; shortly thereafter, the legislature’s reform package, which had already been passed by Republicans in the state House of Representatives and was broadly unpopular with teachers, stalled in the Senate. It was yet more evidence of the political potency of Red for Ed.

Ten months later, things look a bit different. Days away from the South Carolina presidential primary, during which black voters will have their first meaningful chance to weigh in on the Democratic presidential field, the candidacies of Harris, O’Rourke and Booker no longer exist. And South Carolina lawmakers are now in their sixth week of debates over the revived education reform bill, while the state’s teachers claim that their input is being ignored even after last year’s show of strength.

“We’re at a dismal moment right now,” said University of South Carolina professor Jon Hale. “The Senate is about to pass an omnibus reform bill that does not incorporate teacher demands in the least. Outside of a paltry pay raise, you don’t see any of the core issues being addressed. The teachers have expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the bill. So I don’t see a lot of cause for celebration.”

While the lengthy attempt to overhaul state law represents South Carolina’s most ambitious foray into education policy in decades, both Democratic legislators and local experts complain that the bill under consideration fails to address underlying issues of inequality that have plagued the state since the time of Jim Crow. 

Reginald Wilkerson, a professor of education at Clemson University, said that the bill is a worthwhile first swing but that its authors have erred in not offering educators a seat at the drafting table.

“The people most affected by this education reform bill, their voices aren’t being heard,” he said. “It’s a bunch of people basically listening to the business community. And I applaud the business community for getting behind it, but if you don’t have practitioners at the table, you’re putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”

Symbolic victory

South Carolina is somewhat remarkable among Southern states for the comparative lack of attention that public schools have received among policymakers in recent decades. 

Since the passage of the massive Education Improvement Act in 1984 under then-Gov. Richard Riley — who went on to serve as President Clinton’s education secretary — the state has largely stayed the course on K-12 schooling as neighbors such as Florida, Tennessee and Louisiana have enacted dramatic reforms to improve underperforming schools and districts.

Wilkerson, who studied school turnaround efforts in North Carolina before coming to Clemson, blames the fractious nature of education governance in its southern neighbor. With the policy turf divided between the legislature, the governor, an elected state superintendent and an appointed Education Oversight Committee, progress has moved “at a glacial pace,” he said.

“It’s been 35 years since the state has had, in quotes, ‘sweeping’ education reform under Dick Riley. … When you look at Tennessee or Mississippi, you may have a dynamic governor or schools chancellor, depending on the state structure. But there has to be a visionary driving the bus.” 

The absence of focused leadership may explain the dismal performance of the state’s schools, both in terms of overall performance and progress for disadvantaged student groups. In 2018, South Carolina students scored second-to-last in the nation on the ACT college readiness test. The state ranked 43rd in Education Week’s 2019 “Quality Counts” ratings of educational opportunity and performance, earning a D grade for K-12 achievement.

Those failures have intensified in recent years, as education authorities have struggled to curb a growing teacher shortage. A 2014 campaign to boost literacy, dubbed “Read to Succeed,” directed hundreds of millions of dollars toward hiring literacy coaches to work with classroom teachers; six years later, students are reading no better than before. Apparently at a loss for solutions, the state launched a $500,000 ad campaign in 2018 to convince residents that things weren’t as dire as they appeared.

The persistently terrible results, even within a regional context that is often marked by low academic achievement, has led to local opprobrium. After the Post and Courier newspaper published an in-depth series of reports in 2018 detailing massive achievement gaps among both schools and districts, politicians pledged to take major action to spur improvement last year.

But the initial products of that push, led by the state’s Republican legislative majorities, proved controversial. A proposed “Zero to 20 Committee” to study comprehensive education challenges was deemed by teachers to be an additional source of bureaucracy. Instead, school employees demanded smaller class sizes and a 10 percent salary increase.

The clash came to a head last spring, when the Day of Reflection effectively shuttered the General Assembly’s 2019 session. USC’s Hale saw the demonstration as a mixed success.

“It was a symbolic victory — the largest walkout in the state’s history. That’s significant because we have teachers in right-to-work states walking out. We’d never really seen anything of that magnitude. It prevented the bill from being passed last session, but slowing it down is a hard effect to measure. Now it’s back.”

‘It’s obscene’

The school reform legislation has found strong advocates in South Carolina’s influential business community. In a state that has prized its ability to woo high-profile manufacturers like Boeing and BMW, the pro-business Chamber of Commerce speaks with a loud voice.

“There is no silver bullet, but the comprehensive education reform bill being worked on in the Senate includes many of the right reforms,” said state Chamber president Ted Pitts in an email, praising the proposal for expanding Read to Succeed and allowing districts to consolidate under-enrolled schools. “The economy and skills needed for jobs are changing at a rapid pace; we can’t afford to maintain the status quo when it comes to our kids and their future.”

But various initiatives have been the object of consternation among educators. Black school board members in particular have objected to language that would allow the state to take over underperforming districts, arguing that they are being targeted on racial grounds. And while a separate budget proposal includes a $3,000 teacher raise, hundreds of educators have returned to the capital to protest a negotiation process that they say hasn’t incorporated their feedback. 

University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black, a frequent commentator on state equity issues, said that the renewed effort ignored structural problems around poverty, likening the existing bill to “not just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic [but] actually asking people to jump on the ship.” 

“They’ve yet to close the resource gaps around school counselors, qualified teachers, class sizes, pre-K for every disadvantaged kid in the state — we don’t have any of those,” he said. “But they started close to a year and a half ago with new sets of requirements, new oversight, a school board takeover. We don’t even know what the price tag is of delivering a high-quality education, and before we meet that, we’re going to add a whole new set of administrative requirements? It’s obscene.”

Indeed, the state’s 43-year-old funding formula — devised in an era when small towns could rely on abundant tax revenues from local textile mills — is now underfunded by roughly $600 per pupil. One recent study found that tax breaks meant to attract industry and provide relief to homeowners are costing school districts more than $300 million each year. 

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has solicited proposals to update the formula, including by redistributing $174 million to high-need districts, but insiders say that the state is unlikely to act on funding reform anytime soon. 

Over a year into the legislative process, progress of any sort would be welcomed. Even with hearty encouragement from Republican leadership, negotiations in the state Senate have bogged down for five straight weeks as members consider new amendments on school supply allotments for teachers and district start dates. A recent procedural measure to cut off debate on future amendments after 12 minutes was turned back by just a few votes.

Clemson’s Wilkerson said that the drive for reform was plagued by a paradox: Massive academic underperformance cries out for revisions to statewide funding and early education policies, but the state’s slow-going approach to change tends to retard the pace of improvement.

“If it’s taken 35 years to get to this point, I don’t think I have enough years ahead of me to wait for the next effort. I can’t just accept a first step. More important, these children can’t accept a first step. But at the same time, sweeping reform isn’t really in the DNA of this very conservative, traditional state.”

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