State House Report

“Minimally Adequate” Isn’t Good Enough

By Andy Brack
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 |
If there’s one thing that permeates our culture, it’s that we want the best — the winning sports team, the best doctor to treat cancer, the best tax rate, the best choices at the store. Just name the product or service, and we want the best.

Would we want a minimally adequate football team at Carolina or Clemson? No. A coach who lost season after season wouldn’t be tolerated by anyone from fans to a governor.

Would we want to hire a minimally adequate doctor, lawyer or dentist? No, no and no.

How about on a larger scale: Would we accept a minimally adequate power company? A minimally adequate port? A minimally adequate police department? A minimally adequate car? No, times four.

So why in the world do we in South Carolina continue to accept “minimally adequate education” as the standard for our state’s schools? Can’t we do better?

The answer is apparently not, because bills to change the state constitution to require a high-quality education have floundered over the years.

Some historical context: Back in 1993, 40 poor school districts sued the state to get more funding for public education. It’s generally accepted that these schools, some of which were profiled in Bud Ferillo’s 2005 Corridor of Shame film, haven’t had the money to provide the same quality of education found in richer counties of the state.

A few years later, the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 1999 that all that the state constitution required of public education was a “minimally adequate education.” The court defined the phrase as including the ability to read, write and speak English; understand basic economic, social and political systems, history and governmental processes; and receive academic and vocational skills.

This standard — setting a minimum expectation — caused lots of criticism 15 years ago. Even today, former Chief Justice Ernest Finney, who hammered out the wording on the decision, has admitted that it “was probably not the brightest moment in my career.”

Since the 1999 ruling, a circuit court decided in 2004 after 102 days of a trial with 102 witnesses that poor kids in poor districts did not, in fact, get a “minimally adequate” education up to the third grade, but did after that. So the judge required the state to fund early childhood intervention programs to satisfy the “minimally adequate” standard.

But as we’ve written before, that didn’t make anyone happy, so both sides appealed, the case continued and it headed back to the Supreme
Court in June 2008, where it still sits almost six years later. And today, the state continues to have a low bar for performance of public schools.

Wonder what folks today think about that? Here are some Facebook comments recently posted:

• “We certainly have a less than minimally-adequate state government and far less than minimally adequate representation in D.C.”

• “Our school system is inadequate to prepare our citizens (myself included) to understand exactly what minimally adequate means and how to differentiate that concept from thoroughly inadequate.”

• “‘Minimally adequate’ is not an acceptable standard because it is neither aspirational nor sufficient. Did Steve Jobs or Bill Gates set out to create a “minimally adequate” technology company? ... There is no substitute for striving for excellence (and providing the funding to achieve that goal). That’s the only standard that will make our state and its workers competitive in the global economy.”

• “Until South Carolina decides that education and educators are valuable — valuable enough to tax themselves to fund it — hang it up. A business model of education doesn’t work.”

• “One reason I am moving out of South Carolina [is] I am tired of too many citizens accepting mediocrity.”

Let’s not continue to accept a minimally adequate educational system. Let state leaders have the courage — especially with budget talks happening this week on the House floor — to do something about it instead of continuing to lollygag.

Ferillo has a new film that will challenge leaders anew to fund education properly. It comes out this month. To learn more about it, go to statehousereport.com.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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