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Education reform trips over structural, leadership hurdles

The month of May has not been kind to those of us who wanted a reprieve from the high stress world of politics. One would think with summer heat coming that everyone might calm down to stay cool. Alas, no. While the political cauldron known as Washington, D.C. continues to boil, South Carolina has seen its share of political drama in the last month.

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this was the schoolteachers’ rally at the Statehouse in Columbia, where thousands of educators from around the state showed up in early May. Some of you with long memories may remember back in January when Governor McMaster and legislators, both Democratic and Republican alike, promised meaningful reform of public education in the Palmetto State. By the time late April rolled around, it was obvious that the General Assembly was nowhere near fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions.

What was surprising is how many of our fellow citizens voiced approval for the teachers march, coming in a state that has a long history of hostility to labor unions and strikes. However, I suppose many people have decided enough is enough. Another fact is that S.C. lags far behind the rest of the nation in terms of public education. The latest U.S. News rankings have the Palmetto State pulling up the rear at 43rd. Breaking that down, K-12 ranks 41st, while higher education ranks 46th best in the nation. That is a sad indictment indeed.

There is plenty of blame to be spread around. The most obvious whipping boys are the state’s politicians. During the last generation, state lawmakers have sought to reduce taxes in the state to the point that schools are stressed to say the least. Before you rush to call your legislator though, think about this. Political leaders tend to mirror the views of their constituents, especially on fiscal matters. In other words, there are a number of legislators who have no interest in raising taxes because it would lead to them writing their political obituaries — a most disagreeable chore.

Are teachers to blame? Nay, I say. Certainly, there are some teachers who might be a problem, but most teachers are laboring under difficult circumstances. Are the parents to blame? Undoubtedly, some parents are failing to raise their children, leading to issues in our state’s schools. However, that certainly does not apply to all parents. Education departments at colleges around the state face some blame as well. I cannot tell you how many teachers who I have heard over the years comment that their teacher education programs as an undergraduate did not adequately prepare them for the realities of the classroom. In other words, this is a collective problem with a number of people who are part of the problem.

What’s the answer then? As the old saying goes, “any jackass can knock down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” One of the most obvious first reforms is to deal with the low teacher pay in the state. According to a recent salary survey, the 2019 national average for K-12 teacher salaries is $61,730. The states with the highest teacher salary average are New York at $85,889 followed by California at $82,282 — both states with high costs of living. The states with lowest teacher salaries are West Virginia at $47,681 and Mississippi at $45,574. The Palmetto State isn’t doing much better, currently ranked at 41st with an average salary of $50,395. The sad reality is that teachers in S.C. are actually paid worse in 2019 than 2009 when one considers inflation. Even worse, no S.C. school district even begins to approach the national average of $38,000 for new teachers. Although teacher pay is not the sole culprit in the state’s educational woes, there is something to be said for getting what you pay for. When salaries are higher, you can expect to attract better quality job candidates than when salaries are so low.

Another problem facing those hearty souls who will brave the classroom today is that both state and national governments have increased rather dramatically the bureaucracy associated with public education during the last 40 years. Though once there was only a small handful of school administrators, many school systems today seem to have almost as many administrators as teachers in the classroom. The result is that teachers are often not free to teach with what they might consider the best methods. Rather, they are forced to teach in a manner that is mandated to them. Add in a mountain of paperwork and, well, we have a situation in which students are not adequately prepared for either higher education or the workplace.

So, does hope spring eternal? Perhaps, but it will take political leadership to tackle these problems. Legislators have been passing this problem down the line for the last 30 years. Part of the problem is simple human nature, as all of us have a tendency to push problems down the road until we must deal with them. The other part of the problem in S.C. can be attributed to the 1895 state constitution, which set up the current system that gives so much diffused power to the General Assembly. This makes it difficult for a governor or state school superintendent to tackle this issue fully. Although it is possible for disgruntled citizens to coalesce behind an opposition candidate for governor, like teachers did in Georgia in 2002 to defeat Democratic governor Roy Barnes, it becomes much more difficult to clean house when it comes to legislatures.

The fact is that our education woes are just the tip of the iceberg. S.C. has prospered immeasurably during the last 50 years and has great potential for the future. However, political leadership is vital for that success to continue. Come to think of it, this whole situation feels a bit like a Chinese finger trap.

Dr. Scott Buchanan is a professor of political science at The Citadel. His research focuses on Southern politics.

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