South Carolina’s schools chief says legislators should focus on repairing antiquated facilities and increasing the salaries of teachers in its poorest rural school districts.
Education Superintendent Molly Spearman outlined her suggestions Wednesday before a Senate panel tasked with answering a state Supreme Court ruling that South Carolina is not adequately educating students in those districts. The court has ordered lawmakers to come up with a solution by this summer.
However, Spearman said an in-depth evaluation of each district needs to occur before legislators devote more money into infrastructure and technology improvements. The superintendent said the audits would identify any inefficiencies or structural problems in addition to funding.
“I don’t think we need to just initially go in giving money for facilities until we do these studies to see what’s the best governance structure, what’s the best set-up for students for these students?” Spearman said. “We need to really look at that overall view to see how we can sustain these districts to give greater opportunities for students for the long term.”
Spearman said she expected the evaluations would find that some smaller districts should consolidate into a single, larger entity. She also recommended that legislators create incentives for districts to collaborate, such as funding administrative positions that would cover several small districts at once.
A proposal recommended by a South Carolina House panel would offer loans to those poorest districts to help them rebuild aging structures. Spearman said she’d prefer grants, believing that loans would force underserved districts to go into debt and many would not be able to repay it on schedule. Instead, she favors a school “infrastructure bank” idea that would offer grants instead of loans.
Spearman also said she was concerned about the starting salaries that South Carolina teachers receive. The state’s average salary for first-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree is around $32,300. Spearman called the salaries “out of whack” and argued they are a factor in teacher shortages across many of the state’s most impoverished areas.
The superintendent said these shortages often lead to teachers and administrators who are not fully qualified and are “not always teaching at the high level that students deserve.” Spearman said she was surprised by the low expectations she found while visiting several districts involved in the lawsuit. “We don’t need a lot of new programs. We need a lot of high-quality people who can administer what’s already there,” she said.
The superintendent also warned South Carolina is using an out-of-date 39-year-old method to calculate how much it costs to educate each student. Spearman criticized the current state funding formula as dating back to an era when many rural counties still had textile mills. With those property tax bases now gone, many districts have to rely on borrowed money raised through bonds to pay for basic maintenance needs.
Many legislators and Gov. Nikki Haley publicly agree with Spearman, but proposed fixes are usually held up by lawmakers whose home districts would lose state money under the changes.