Charleston Post and Courier: Reform S.C. school funding
August 3, 2008
Developing a politically palatable new way to pay for South Carolina’s public schools won’t be easy. Otherwise, that assignment would already have been completed. But unless our elected leaders accomplish that arduous task, our state’s education system will continue to be hamstrung by an outmoded funding format. This high-stakes job demands creativity, courage and compromise.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, recognizing those needs, last year appointed a House committee to study school funding and to craft practical recommendations. That group, which last met on July 22, will convene again Tuesday.
Mr. Harrell, a Charleston Republican, aptly assessed his panel’s stern challenge Friday, telling us: “It’s critical that we deal with the formulas because they’re outdated. It’s going to create winners and losers, and that makes it politically difficult.”
Exacerbating that difficulty is the shift of public-school funding from property taxes to a state sales tax enacted by the Legislature two years ago. Speaker Harrell cites two areas of particular concern: “We need to take home values out of the formula. And we need to take poverty rates into account.”
The plight of poor districts that have long struggled to find sufficient resources for their schools highlights the vital issue of funding equity. Calls for a full takeover of school funding by the state, however, meet strong resistance from many South Carolinians, in and out of political office, who are opposed to the higher taxes that such a switch would almost certainly force.
The House panel examining this problem, and a Senate panel doing the same, cover a wide range of political and ideological affiliations.
Mr. Harrell hailed his House group as “a broad-based committee that represents all areas of the state.” He added that it includes “Republican and Democrat, black and white, male and female, rich and poor,” and argued that its diverse composition maximizes its chances of reaching a viable consensus.
While legislators are understandably wary about producing a new funding system that riles large parts of the taxpaying public, Mr. Harrell emphasizes that the overriding consequence of failing to produce one means “that we’ll continue to distribute school funding money on a formula that makes absolutely no sense.”
Certainly it will be more difficult for South Carolina to improve public schools while carrying the unnecessary burden of an anachronistic funding format.
The 2008 legislative session, conducted during an election year, didn’t address this pressing issue. The 2009 legislative session will do so only if lawmakers make the tough calls required to fulfill an overdue obligation.