SC senators discuss school accountability, state takeovers

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A small group of South Carolina senators are nearly finished with their review of a massive bill to overhaul the state’s education system.

Nearly a month after the Legislature went home for the year, the subcommittee reviewing the bill met Monday to discuss what can be done to hold failing school districts accountable and put them under state control if necessary.

The subcommittee has met about a dozen times over six months to take testimony and discuss the bill, which touches nearly every segment of education from pre-kindergarten to technical schools and from standardized testing to how schools are run.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Greg Hembree said the group’s final meeting will be scheduled before the summer ends to vote on an updated version of the bill. The Little River Republican then wants the full Senate Education Committee to debate it, amend it further and then pass it so it will be on the Senate floor and ready for debate when the 2020 session starts on Jan. 14.

The House passed its own version of the bill in March and Gov. Henry McMaster urged the Senate to follow as soon as it can. But Senate leaders said the sheer amount of change in the bill needed extra time to review.

Hembree’s staff posted a proposed amendment to the bill on the Senate Education Committee’s website and urged members and the public to read the 22 pages of changes to the proposal which is already around 80 pages.

On Monday, the subcommittee heard from state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who is working to encourage smaller school districts to consolidate and to get guidance and structure on when and how the state can take over struggling school districts.

The Education Department is already helping run school districts in Williamsburg, Florence and Allendale counties. But the agency’s exact involvement is different in each place, Spearman said.

In Allendale County, the school board is being kept in place and elections are still being held even though the board currently has no power — and that creates confusion, Spearman said.

Spearman also asked lawmakers to help develop guidelines on how and when to return control to local leaders.

Allendale schools were taken over by the state more than 15 years ago and made great progress, but it was almost all squandered when local control returned, the superintendent said.

Hembree said he respects that local governments want to keep control of their schools. But he said educating students is required by the state constitution, so lawmakers must take an aggressive stance on how it is done.

“Many of these districts have been failing from generation to generation. We’re going to have to be bold,” Hembree said.

Sen. John Matthews said he worries the state is relaxing education standards that were once among the toughest in the Southeast U.S. Education officials agreed with his assessment and said while South Carolina is making slow progress, many other Southern states are advancing faster, leaving the state to fall further behind toward the bottom of 50-state lists.

“We’re going back to where we’ve been,” said Matthews, a Democrat from Bowman. “And is that really where we want to be?”


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