South Carolina Reform Drive Forges ‘Great Marriage’

By Ellen Flax — September 13, 1989 8 min read

Columbia, S.C.--On top of his duties as chief operating officer of the Keenan Company, Robert Selman usually finds time each week to read through the stacks of reports on education reform that clutter his desk.

Like many other business leaders in this state, the financial-services and real-estate executive worries almost as much about high dropout rates as he does about high interest rates.

But thanks to a pioneering experiment in educational decisionmaking in South Carolina, Mr. Selman also has a chance to exert direct influence over policies to improve the schools.

Along with other business leaders, educators, and lawmakers, Mr. Selman is a member of the Business-Education Subcommittee, which since passage of a landmark 1984 law has been responsible for overseeing implementation of the state’s school-reform efforts.

In the coming months, for example, Mr. Selman and his colleagues on the panel will help develop guidelines for a new program, passed by the legislature this summer, to free more than 200 high-achieving schools from many aspects of state regulation.

Well-Defined Niche

The subcommittee--and the broader participation of the state’s business community in providing political and financial support for education--are seen by many national experts as a notable example of increased business involvement in schools.

Like other states, South Carolina invited business leaders to serve on blue-ribbon committees charged with reshaping education policy. Unlike the others, however, it has also carved out a well-defined niche for business that has continued long after other panels completed their appointed tasks.

“While business involvement in education has not been unusual, the particular form and institutionalization of it in South Carolina is unusual,” said Michael Cohen, associate director of education for the National Governors’ Association.

“I think it is the most far-reaching role for business written into legislation to date,” added Laurie Miller McNeill, a research associate for the Institute for Education and the Economy at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who has studied business involvement in education.

Although the job of forging an alliance between the Palmetto State’s business and education communities was not always easy, participants said, it has already yielded significant benefits in terms of improved student achievement.

“Educators want to talk our language, and we want to speak theirs,” Mr. Selman said. “What we have to do is to continue to keep the profile on this issue very high.”

‘A Great Marriage’

The drive for increased business involvement in education, observers noted, began during the severe economic downturn that hit South Carolina--and particularly its dominant textile industry--during the early 1980’s.

At the same time, awareness was growing that the public schools--which had traditionally ranked among the lowest in the nation on standardized tests--were unprepared to produce the skilled labor pool needed for the workplaces of the future.

“Circumstances changed very much during that period of time,” said A. Baron Holmes, assistant executive director of the budget control board. “The mindset switched from cost minimization to productivity maximization. And businesses realized that they needed a more educated labor force for this more capital-intensive business.”

To meet these enhanced educational needs, then-Gov. Richard W. Riley and Superintendent of Education Charlie G. Williams decided that additional sources of revenue were required. So they turned to the business community for support.

In 1983, they jointly appointed two committees of business people, educators, and legislators to draft reform legislation.

At the same time, prominent business leaders agreed to support a one-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for these efforts. In return, educators agreed to accept a greater degree of accountability for student outcomes, observers recalled.

“There was a great marriage in this state between business and education,” said Mr. Riley, who is now in private law practice.

“We were really looking at the history of where we were and how we could bring South Carolina into the mainstream,” he said. “We had to involve everybody. And part of that everybody, and part of that influential everybody, was the business community.”

Robert Thompson, vice president for public affairs for Springs Industries, a textile firm in Fort Mill, said Mr. Riley won business backing “by appealing to our self-interest.”

“He also had to beat us over the head with the idea that mediocre to average [education] wasn’t going to provide us with any sound economic future,” Mr. Thompson added.

“Had the business community not been involved, the [reform law] would not have passed,” said Representative David Beasley, chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee. “You can’t depend on the education groups to get things rolling.”

‘Far-Reaching’ Role for Business

The result of this united effort was the Education Improvement Act of 1984. Paid for by a specially earmarked one-cent sales tax, the measure created new compensatory-education and other programs; a mandatory exit exam for high-school graduates; and two incentive-pay programs for teachers.

The law also established the subcommittee as a permanent forum for business input into educational policy at the state level.

The subcommittee, composed of members of the two task forces ap8pointed by Mr. Riley and Mr. Williams, was given broad advisory powers. It was authorized to review proposed rules for all programs created by the new law, to suggest candidates to head a new division of public accountability within the education department, and to monitor all aspects of the eia’s implementation.

The reform bill passed this summer clarified the duties and membership of the subcommittee and the two larger committees, which were merged into one. The larger panel is required to have 64 members, 20 of whom serve on the subcommittee. The smaller panel includes 10 civic and business leaders, 6 educators, and 4 legislators.

Dividends Noted

Both educators and business leaders say the partnership has led to gains in the classroom. During the past five years, the state has shown significant gains on standardized tests and increased its attendance rates, while public-opinion polls have found that both educators and parents believe the system has improved.

Gains have also been made in the political arena, observers say.

“In 1983, one of the major questions was whether there was enough competence within the educational community to effectively use the additional resources,” said William Page, executive vice president of the U.S. Shelter Corporation and chairman of the subcommittee. “This year, there was no question about the ability and the competence of the educational establishment to carry out a program of quality.”

“Business people are much better at lobbying,” said Ellen Still, director of research for the Senate’s Education Committee. “They are also solution-oriented. Legislators can relate to that.”

“Up to this point, it has been a very positive relationship,” Mr. Williams said. “They have been a major partner in selling education reform.”

Part of this success, observers say, is due to a cadre of highly motivated business people who have devoted many hours to school-improvement efforts. Mr. Page, for instance, said he has spent several work days each month for the past six years on the issue.

Product and Process

Both business leaders and educators said they have learned from each other over the course of their six-year dialogue.

“Their great contribution, I would say, was an emphasis on productivity and output considerations,” said James A. Wilsford, superintendent of the Orangeburg District 5 schools and a member of the subcommittee.

Educators, on the other hand, provided a needed balance to the business people’s orientation, Mr. Wilsford added.

“I think our big contribution was to make sure that both laws concentrated on the needs of all students,” he said. “I think they didn’t understand the diversity of the state.”

“Their tendency is to focus on the product,” Mr. Williams observed. “Our tendency is to focus on the process.”

Participants also said relations between the two groups have improved since the first series of meetings.

“There were times, early on, when there would be a ceo sitting next to a teacher, and they would barely speak to one another,” said Terry Peterson, the subcommittee’s executive director. “Now, they’ll sit by each other and talk.”

“They’ll purposely, just for fun, say something that gets the other just a little bit agitated,” he continued. “Before, if they had made those comments, there would have been an explosion.”

Business leaders on the subcommittee add that they have been careful about respecting the expertise of educators.

“The final policy-making has to be done by the educational establishment,” Mr. Page noted.

More ‘Pro-Active’

In the immediate future, the subcommittee will work on guidelines for the new program of reduced regulation for superior schools. (See Education Week, June 14, 1989.)

After that, members said, the panel will tackle far more difficult targets, including lowering the dropout rate, improving the higher-order thinking skills of all children, evaluating the effectiveness of money already spent, and solving the state’s school-construction crisis.

“I’m hoping that it will develop into a more active, pro-active forum,” Mr. Selman of the Keenan Company said. “The more difficult the issues become, the more sensitive people will have to be.”

“I think we need to be constantly researching, constantly planning, and constantly innovating, instead of doing something once every four or five years,” he said.