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In South Carolina, Reform Proposal Draws Critics on Two Fronts

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The education reform legislation that the South Carolina Senate appears ready to pass has some critics charging that its consequences may prove too severe, even as others argue the measure is not tough enough.

The Senate bill is designed to identify and help failing schools and struggling students by implementing stricter standards and frequent assessments.

It is also similar to a measure the state House passed 95-25 late last month that faced opposition from two fronts: black lawmakers who charged that the reforms could further alienate poor districts and conservative members who asserted that the bill does not go far enough in holding schools accountable.

Both bills are based on recommendations from a commission made up of educators and business leaders that Gov. David Beasley, a Republican, appointed last year.

The committee recommended that the state create an education report card that would compare schools and districts.

Black lawmakers are opposed to the bills primarily because they fail to realign state education spending to provide equitable funding for all schools as they implement the new standards and assessments.

Without changing the funding system, legislators are setting up poor, rural districts to fail, argued Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, a black member of the House education committee.

"We are not opposed to accountability," said Ms. Moody-Lawrence, a Democrat. "But let the state fund all districts at the same level if you're going to set benchmarks."

Meanwhile, Rep. John Graham Altman III, a Republican, said he voted against the House bill because it does not include real consequences for schools and students who fail to make the grade.

Without stiffer penalties, the school accountability bill is "just a big, hollow drum you can bang on to make a satisfying election-year noise," Mr. Altman maintained. "When you open it up, it's empty inside."

Incentive Plan

Like the House accountability bill, the Senate version under consideration would measure student and school performance through progress on annual exams tailored to match state academic standards. Both bills would also provide financial incentives for the state's best teachers and administrators to serve in the schools judged to be the lowest-performing.

By providing such incentives, the legislation could help ease some of the staffing needs of low-paying rural districts that "aren't attractive to teachers," said Elizabeth Gressette, the executive director of the independent Palmetto State Teachers Association.

"These two bills are saying that we need good people and we are willing to pay for them," Ms. Gressette said.

But while the bills outline clear standards, legislators have failed to erase funding inequities--an oversight that could prevent some state schools from making real progress, Ms. Gressette said.

"My fear is that we will take our present system, which isn't cutting it, and just put these requirements on top of it without changing the delivery system," Ms. Gressette said.

Supporters of the House bill point to the $14.4 million in new funding they have proposed adding to help implement new standards. The proposed K-12 budget for fiscal 1999 is $1.99 billion, a $168 million increase over last year. The legislation would phase in reforms over a 6-year period.

The Road Ahead

Although the Senate is expected to pass its version of the bill this week, observers say work on finishing the legislation could get hung up when committee members attempt to hash out the differences between the House and Senate bills.

While the House bill would assign annual grades to schools on an A-F scale, for example, the Senate bill would measure school performance using categories such as "successful," "on notice," or "challenged."

Assigning a school an A or an F is important as a matter of public disclosure, said Rep. Ronald P. Townsend, a Republican who chairs the House education committee.

By using a simplified grading scale that people are already familiar with, the state won't have to explain the meaning of a specific ranking, he said.

But critics of the grading scale in the House bill say little good would be accomplished by stigmatizing a school with a failing grade.

"We know there are 'F' schools, but that's not going to make communities rally around them," Ms. Gressette said.

Just before passing the House bill, legislators also tacked on a controversial amendment that would allow a student to transfer out of an F school and into a higher-achieving school in the same district.

Students living in districts where higher-graded schools are not available would be able to attend school in another district.

Amendment Debate

Amendment supporters say parents should have the ability to pull their children from failing schools.

"If your own government says your neighborhood school is a rotten school, how can you ask parents to send their kids there?" Mr. Altman said.

But because it provides no money to transport students from a failing school to a different school, critics say the amendment would not help students whose families aren't able to afford cross-town transportation.

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