The Year of Education

Common Core, Statewide Races Put Schools at Top of the Agenda
By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Perhaps the biggest bombshell has been Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposal to spend about $160 million more on public education, with money directed specifically at leveling the playing field for students in poor, rural districts. Illustrations by Matt Bradley

For Bobby Chandler, a teacher in South Carolina public schools for 41 years and a recipient of many awards for excellence in teaching, Common Core State Standards — how they’ve been implemented, with scant public awareness and even less input — are an affront to his life’s work.

“It’s a seismic shift in what we’re doing, and people don’t fully understand it, and you don’t put that out there to the people for debate?” he asks. “The fact that I teach federalism, that I teach checks and balances, that I teach separation of powers, for what? Jeopardy? Or actual exercise of those principles?”

Chandler, having driven up from Myrtle Beach where he teaches at Socastee High School, was the lone working teacher to speak Feb. 19 at a State House rally against Common Core.

While opponents say Common Core undermines teacher autonomy and increases federal involvement in education, supporters describe it as a valuable new set of K-12 learning goals aimed at improving college and career readiness by shifting classroom learning away from memorization toward analysis and exposition.

Forty-five states, including South Carolina, have adopted the standards since 2010. All but Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia embraced it in order to qualify for a federal competitive grant program worth $4.3 billion.

To be in the running, states had to institute academic reforms — a requirement most easily satisfied by signing on for Common Core. Given that in 2010 state agencies across the nation were reeling from the budget deficiencies of the Great Recession, the Obama administration’s grant incentive proved irresistible to most. All the adoption needed in South Carolina was quiet approval from the State Board of Education and its policy branch, the Education Oversight Committee.

To the roughly 50 anti-Common Core activists attending the Feb. 19 event — put on by the Tea Party-aligned, socially conservative South Carolina Parents Involved in Education — that incentive amounts to federal coercion, an end-run around democratic principles. According to some of the more strident speakers, Common Core is “child abuse,” a “mission to rewrite our history,” and the “final nail in the coffin.” Common Core, it was suggested, will make “seven plus four equal ten in South Carolina.”

But despite the levels of fear, frustration and anger evident at last Wednesday’s rally; despite “Stop Common Core!” becoming a conservative rallying cry; despite the same crowd that’s fighting Common Core having a fairly successful track record advocating for school choice initiatives and abstinence-only sex education, issues that have gained most of their traction on the right-wing of the American mainstream; the General Assembly has other education priorities in mind this legislative session.

And, for once, those priorities are at least a modest blessing for public education. With a recent shift in tone from Gov. Nikki Haley, a compromise in the works on Common Core and a de-emphasis at the State House on school choice, it seems that at least in the realm of education policy, the Tea Party has not taken over the Palmetto State.

The Year of Education

Oddly enough, education priorities are legislative priorities this year. In a state accustomed to bringing up the rear in national education rankings — and where a decades-long lawsuit challenging the equity of public school funding remains unresolved — it can take a lot to drag education policy to the forefront. But at the forefront is where it’s likely to remain — at least until after the November elections.

The reasons are many, and the evidence is everywhere. In January, a national school-choice tour hit Columbia, demonstrating that long after the debates of the Sanford era, outside forces are still keen to make South Carolina a petri dish for the movement.

School choice is the catchall term for initiatives that use public money to educate children outside of traditional public schools. Most common is the use of tax credits to help parents with the cost of private school tuition. Charter schools are another form of school choice because they are privately run schools supported by public money. Supporters say school choice allows students in failing public schools a way out; opponents criticize school choice for diverting money away from the public school system and contributing to segregation by race and class.

The National School Choice Week Whistle-Stop Tour came on the heels of an announcement from Education Superintendent Mick Zais in December that he won’t seek re-election. His departure means school-choice proponents are losing a strong ally in state government. It also leaves the superintendent race wide open — and with it the future of education policy in South Carolina.

But that’s only part of the education fireworks going off in the Palmetto State. Perhaps the biggest bombshell has been Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposal to spend about $160 million more on public education, with money directed specifically at leveling the playing field for students in poor, rural districts. Coming from a Tea Party-affiliated governor not known for sympathizing with the poor, opponents were quick to label the plan an election-year stunt. Regardless of Haley’s motives, though, if legislators embrace her plan — and it looks like they might — it could mark a new era in the debate on South Carolina education policy.

Haley’s plan amounts to a co-opting of her opponent’s signature issue, although she has yet to embrace Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s call for universal 4-year-old kindergarten. Politically it could prove to be a savvy move. More importantly, it could shift both the tone and substance of the state’s education policies.

Meanwhile, the grassroots Tea Party crowd that propelled Haley to the governor’s office might wonder what happened to their school choice champion from 2010. While no one in her administration is going to say it out loud, in aggressively courting industry to bring jobs to South Carolina — and ignoring charges of corporate welfare from the libertarian-leaning South Carolina Policy Council — Haley has aligned herself with the GOP’s business-minded mainstream, where rabble-rousing rhetoric and symbolic defiance of the federal government is fine until it affects the bottom line.

Education, Haley appears to have realized, is economic development.

What to Do on Common Core?

Back at last Wednesday’s Common Core protest, S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms raised the specter of Big Brother from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. Grooms, a Republican from Berkeley County, who has proposed banning Common Core in the state, spoke of its fictional character Winston Smith, whose government job was to revise history texts so they matched the ruling-party line.

“Common Core is being written right now by Winston Smith,” Grooms warned.

He gestured toward the statue of Sen. Strom Thurmond, often remembered for his early segregation politics and rampant libido, on the south side of the State House.  “I wonder how the Common Core is going to treat him?” Grooms asked, eliciting knowing laughter from some of the attendees.

Common Core standards are meant to emphasize analysis over memorization, with students asked to explain their work — even for simple math problems. Detractors say even if the goals are laudable, implementation can be problematic. Source:

Before the rally, though, the Senate Education K-12 subcommittee had already met to discuss Grooms’ proposed Common Core ban. According to sources privy to the discussion, senators are forging a compromise, as even those wholly opposed to the standards have recognized that their revocation would upend the coming school year for students and teachers.

Some of the event’s attendees booed at the mention of compromise and scoffed at “politics as usual,” but rally organizer Sheri Few — a Republican candidate for state superintendent and founder of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education — urged them to trust their Senate allies.

“They do not want to compromise either, but they know the Senate system and they know how to get a bill to the floor and that is their goal,” Few said.

According to Sen. Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson), who sits on the Senate Education Committee, “The compromise being talked about is to go ahead and stick with the subjects that we’ve started with in Common Core, and not go any further. Also, there’s some ways where we could not go any further and yet over time back out of the subjects that we’ve started with.”

The compromise would entail leaving Common Core’s English and math standards in place for two years, at which point they’d come up for review and revision, according to a source who is familiar with the plan but declined to be identified before a key vote on it. The state would also scuttle standardized testing provided by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, which has been developing tests for Common Core standards with assistance from the Obama administration. Consequently, South Carolina would go without accountability testing for two years, in order to allow teachers and students time to prepare for a different standardized test.

“Also there’s a line that says, ‘No student data will ever go to D.C.’ Well, we never have nor never intended to send student-level data to Washington under any scenario, but that’s just hypersensitive, Oliver Stone stuff,” the source said.

A Turning Point for Public Education?

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles the heavy lifting when it comes to formulating the state budget, has sent a proposed spending package to the House for approval that includes all of Haley’s recent education spending proposals. 

According to the House Ways and Means Committee, that includes $54.3 million in new funding and an increase in Base Student Cost to $2,120, meaning the state has allocated $19 more per student for this school year. This includes weighting adjustments to the funding formula to provide additional money for students in poverty — a measure the General Assembly has resisted for years, despite an abundance of research showing that students from low-income households cost significantly more to educate, simply because they don’t enter the classroom on the same footing as their peers from better-off households.

When it comes to funding the Base Student Cost, a spending mechanism established in the Education Finance Act of 1977, the General Assembly’s track record shows how low a priority K-12 education spending has traditionally been in South Carolina. Since that same year, the Legislature has only fully funded what the Base Student Cost’s formula called for eight times. Some years, spending came close, but in others it lagged by more than $100 a child. In recent years, as tax revenues dried up in recession, that deficit ranged from more than $500 to more than $1,000 per child.

Indeed the state’s K-12 spending record is so lackluster that, upon hearing the school choice activists’ mantra — “We can’t fix schools by throwing money at them.” — one might feel compelled to respond: “How would you know? We’ve never really tried it.”

It was the General Assembly’s refusal to provide additional funding to rural, mostly black school districts, which were forced to rely on meager local tax bases, that led to the infamous 1993 lawsuit Abbeville County School District, et al. v. The State of South Carolina. The 2006 documentary film Corridor of Shame brought national attention to the case, including from then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign, and pushed funding equity into the mainstream of South Carolina’s education debate.

At the end of 2005, a circuit court judge ruled that South Carolina had failed to provide “minimally adequate education” — the less-than-aspirational standard set by the South Carolina Constitution — in early childhood education. But the judge also ruled that the state’s K-12 schools met the “minimally adequate” standard. Consequently, both parties appealed and concluded oral arguments before the S.C. Supreme Court on June 25, 2008. Eight years later, South Carolina is still awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.

Also included in the budget passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee is $29.4 million for reading coaches and $29.2 million for improving classroom technology, two initiatives touted by Haley and long pushed by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. The reading coaches are likely to be complemented by the South Carolina Read to Succeed Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee). While that bill is intended to bolster literacy, some educators have grave misgivings over the part of the law that would have students held back if they aren’t reading at grade level. They argue that Peeler’s bill has ignored a significant body of research that shows grade retention having devastating consequences on student development, but those concerns appear to fall on deaf ears, given the influence of the bill’s backers.

As big an impact as Haley’s education proposals could have on the Palmetto State’s schools and education debate, her likely gubernatorial opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw), sees no reason to praise her.

“All you have to do is look back and see that the first three years of office, Haley vetoed teacher pay raises. The bulk of her vetoes were always to education funding,” Sheheen said by phone Friday.

“When she was appealing to her Tea Party base, she was against public education,” Sheheen says. “And then, in an election year — when she understands that much of the public school support out there is with me — she’s flip-flopping on education, but I’m glad she’s supporting my positions.”

School Choice Losing Steam

Democrats weren’t the only ones taken aback by Haley’s seeming about-face on education spending.

“I’d understood her position up to this point to be opposed to throwing more money at public education as a solution to any of the problems that exist,” remarked House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) in the days after Haley announced her proposal. “It was all reform-minded and less spending more money.”

The reforms Bannister refers to have often meant school choice initiatives. Small wins over the past decade came in the form of charter school expansion, but last year choice advocates claimed a big victory when the General Assembly approved $8 million in tax credits for donations to scholarship funds that pay for qualifying students with special needs to attend roughly 40 schools approved for the program, located mostly in Columbia, Charleston and Greenville.

Sen. Bryant of Anderson sounds a little frustrated that the education debate has strayed from school choice of late. Political opposition has softened in recent years, he says, but “we just don’t have the votes for it.” 

That doesn’t mean he’s taking a powder on the issue this session, though.

“I feel like it would be a great victory if we could make this [scholarship program] for the exceptional needs into permanent law, and then I think those of us who are for school choice would probably sit back for a while and see how that’s going. I think it will eventually pave the way for more school choice,” Bryant says.
Meanwhile, opponents of school choice — arguing that its various initiatives don’t improve academic outcomes and have an adverse affect on public schools — have their fingers crossed that the movement’s been deflated for the time being.

“It’s really been a non-issue the past couple of months,” says Michael Fanning, a former teacher and director of the Olde English Consortium, a nonprofit working with communities and schools in smaller, less wealthy districts. “They haven’t been organized enough around that issue to get mad at Haley [for education spending] or not, because the focus is on Common Core.”

Fanning points to the crowded field of GOP candidates in the state superintendent race as further evidence.

“Not a one of them has school choice as their main issue,” Fanning says. “Name the last time we had a race for superintendent where — in the Republican primary — not one candidate has had school choice as their No. 1 issue. Now, I’m sure it’s on their platforms, but Common Core has been the No. 1 issue for the majority of candidates in the Republican primary,” he says.

Bryant basically agrees with Fanning’s analysis of the GOP candidates, but considers campaigning on school choice “something that in a Republican primary they’re going to have to do. I would think that the one who runs the best campaign on school choice would be the one that takes the lead in the primary, but we’ll see. They’re all for it, but Zais, you know, that was the top of his agenda.”

It’s no secret in South Carolina, at least it hasn’t been for the past few election cycles, that school choice has had some help becoming candidates’ No. 1 issue. New York millionaire Howard Rich, intent on making the Palmetto State an education policy test kitchen, has helped bankroll quite a few politicians, particularly libertarian-leaning challengers to incumbents favored by the business-minded GOP mainstream.

According to The State, Rich made $153,000 in the political donations during 2012’s primary and general elections, down from the quarter million he’s said to have invested in House candidates during the 2010 primaries. Tracking Rich’s donations can be difficult, though, given the secretive network of limited liability corporations he uses to distribute his largesse. Even though Rich’s win-loss ratio isn’t much to crow about, it’s hard to imagine he’s finished trying to influence policy in South Carolina.

A One-Issue Crowd

But judging by last week’s rally, at present there’s little appetite among conservative education activists, who wield hefty influence in Republican primaries, for rhetoric that’s not hopping mad over Common Core.

After several activists and elected officials had their turn at the microphone, the demonstration morphed into a de facto stump meeting of anti-Common Core superintendent candidates, during which candidate Meka Childs, who served as Zais’ deputy until recently, lost the audience while addressing policy points other than eradicating Common Core. Red meat bashing of liberals and their insidious agendas carried the crowd that day.

Like Childs, Gary Burgess is a black Republican candidate, a category of politician that’s beginning to turn fewer heads in South Carolina. He and rally organizer Few proved most adept at raising attendees’ spirits. Burgess did so with lines like, “I often tell my wife, who is from another region of the country, ‘American by birth, Southern by the grace of God!” Few drew attention with a promise to establish a task force that would weed liberal bias from Palmetto State text books. “What I’ve seen of the textbooks in South Carolina, it’s full of anti-American, anti-Christian rhetoric and it’s time to put a stop to that,” Few said.

Elizabeth Moffly, a Charleston County school board member who’s run for the office twice before, was the last candidate to speak and struggled to keep a tired, drifting audience’s attention. GOP candidates Sally Atwater, wife of the late, legendary political strategist Lee Atwater, and Haley donor and Lexington attorney Amy Cofield were not in attendance. Meanwhile, USC science professor Don Jordan, who only entered the GOP field last week, advocates cautiously doing away with Common Core. He says Common Core textbooks have already been purchased and money shouldn’t be wasted.

Yet another Republican entered the race Monday. Molly Spearman, director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, has said in the past that she tentatively supports Common Core but opposes the federal government tying adoption of the standards to a state’s ability to draw down funding from Washington.

Meanwhile, the Democratic field has held at two — retired educator Rep. Mike Anthony (D-Union) and first-time candidate Montrio Belton.

Don’t Get Too Excited, Teachers

Not every education wonk in South Carolina is optimistic though. Paul Thomas, an education policy expert and author at Furman University, sounds downright frightened.

“It’s difficult to tell the difference from Republicans and Democrats when you look at their education policy,” he says.

But Democrats don’t push vouchers that would divert tax revenue from public schools to private schools, do they?

“That’s true but, they love charter schools and what’s the difference?” Thomas asks. “In the practical outcome considerations, there is no difference. Charter schools, public school choice, they all have the same outcome. They segregate schools by race and class and they do not address the problems,” he said Saturday, citing a 2013 study on charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Like the participants at last Wednesday’s rally, however, Thomas also sees potential for huge damage to America’s schools in Common Core. He points to recent research that shows academic standards having little bearing on student achievement and decries the cost of Common Core implementation.

“This will be the fourth set of standards in South Carolina since the early 80s, and we’ve never been happy with any of them because that’s not the problem,” he says. “It’s going to cost the state tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to implement Common Core — and in a high-poverty state, that’s just criminal. There are so many other things we could do with that money,” Thomas says.

It turns out that while Bobby Chandler of Socastee High and Paul Thomas of Furman might view Common Core view through the lenses of different ideologies, they’re not too far apart in some of their basic concerns. Both of them oppose standards for similar reasons. They don’t see them benefiting students.

“Standards movements always de-professionalize teachers and take away their autonomy. Standards movements always result in what is tested being what is taught,” Thomas says.

Says Chandler: “Common Core’s standards and assessment mechanisms … will surely kill creativity, individuality and a love of learning in both teachers and students. Teachers will teach to the test, for their evaluations and jobs will depend on student scores.”

Public education advocates in South Carolina have been through too much to get overly excited about the landscape they’re looking at. Yes, the governor has proposed modest increases in state spending — and her proposals have cleared a key committee. Yes, the school choice movement appears to be losing steam this session. But major reforms like universal 4-k aren’t gaining much traction, the 21-year-old equity funding lawsuit remains unresolved and Common Core — whether you support it or not — will be costly and contentious to implement.

Still, there’s at least some hope on the horizon. It’s been a long time since a South Carolina governor talked about trying to bridge the equity gap in state schools. And while Gov. Haley is certainly no Dick Riley when it comes to improving education in the state, her recent change in tone could prove meaningful all the same.

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