Published Online: January 15, 2010

S.C. School Chief: Testing, Education Programs Could Be Cut

South Carolina's schools chief said Thursday he'll ask legislators to suspend some mandates, such as testing, to help schools deal with shrinking budgets.

Education Superintendent Jim Rex said some school districts are already close to operating in the red, with five months remaining in the school year, and it's unclear what else they could cut.

"We're at the point now that we have to ask ourselves, 'What can we no longer afford to do?'" he said, noting many expenses are due to state and federal mandates. "All the numbers are frankly going in the wrong direction — unemployment, poverty, resources are dropping like a rock, and the Legislature's talking about more cuts."

Legislators are starting budget negotiations with a $563 million budget hole, which follows repeated budget cuts over the last 18 months.

One way to survive, Rex said, is by forgoing state-standardized testing that's not required by federal law, including end-of-course tests taken in high school and social studies in primary grades. He was unsure of the savings. Rex said another possibility could be suspending a 2005 law requiring more physical activity and PE teachers.

There are 1,000 fewer teachers in classrooms statewide this year than last, meaning student-teacher ratios are up, teachers are working harder and schools are offering fewer courses, said Mark Bounds, deputy superintendent for educator quality.

At the agency, 105 vacancies will go unfilled, and employees will again have to take unpaid days off, Rex said, adding that he will take the furlough too.

He also agreed that the state stipend for national board certified teachers is no longer affordable.

Last month, the state Education Oversight Committee again advised lawmakers to scrap the incentive pay plan for teachers who earn the certification after June 30. South Carolina gives $7,500 annual stipends for the 10-year life of the certification. About 800 teachers qualified in 2009, bringing the total to nearly 7,300 statewide, continuing to rank the state third nationwide.

Legislators rejected the proposal last year, but it could get a closer look this time.

"There are no sacred cows this year," said House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont.

Rex said the stipend has helped keep the best teachers in the classroom, rather than seeking higher-paying administrative jobs. But he could support tweaking the program, such as preventing teachers from renewing their certification to get the stipend for 10 more years and capping how many can enter.

He said the best long-term answer is revamping the way teachers are paid, with bonuses going to teachers in the most challenged schools, and incentives based on student performance.

The state is applying for a piece of $4 billion in federal money that could make that happen, through the "Race to the Top" competitive grant program for education innovation. South Carolina could be eligible for roughly $200 million, Bounds said.

The certification program is so popular, Rex said, because in most South Carolina districts, it's the only way for teachers to significantly boost their salaries.

The state House on Thursday approved legislation giving schools more budget flexibility in the next school year. Mimicking a bill passed for the current school year, the proposal allows districts to shift money around in 2010-11 to cover shortfalls, delay handing out contracts this spring, increase classroom sizes, furlough teachers for up to five days, and negotiate lower pay for retired teachers who return to the classroom.

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