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S.C. education at top of legislative agenda, lawmakers say

COLUMBIA – Education -- from funding inequities to preparing students for jobs -- will be the key issue before the General Assembly for the 2019 session, House and Senate leaders say.

Key lawmakers gathered Thursday to recap the 2018 session and discuss the agenda for the session that gets underway Tuesday. They were featured in a series of three panels during the South Carolina Press Association's annual Legislative Workshop for the Media.

Three T&D region lawmakers -- Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg -- were among the panelists.

Education -- specifically funding, teacher retention and teacher pay -- was discussed regarding public schools and the higher education system.

Spending for higher ed

Legislators were asked about problems in higher education, including spending by colleges and universities, tuition hikes and the readiness of graduates to enter the workforce.

With the T&D Region being home to a private university (Claflin), technical college (Orangeburg-Calhoun), and state-funded university (South Carolina State), higher education is a topic familiar to lawmakers representing the region.

“We’re not giving higher education enough money and, yes, they are not spending it wisely," Cobb-Hunter said. "But I think it’s a mistake to assume that all of the inequities in higher ed can be made up looking just at how universities are spending the money.

“It reminds me of the welfare reform and all of the conversations around the year is about welfare abuse: 'If we just crack down on fraud and abuse, then we will have enough resources to go around.' I see similarities in the conversation today about higher ed,” Cobb-Hunter said.

“In my opinion, the General Assembly has failed to acknowledge its role in underfunding higher ed,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter said there is a positive trend related to spending, but within the upward trend is a disparity.

“Over the last few years we have seen progress in higher ed, and there have been decisions about how to spend the money,” she said.

“What I find so frustrating is that the focus is usually on Clemson, Carolina and MUSC, and all of the other four-year institutions get short shrift on both conversation and looking at their needs,” she said.

“I believe that conversation about higher ed spending has to occur with all of the stakeholders at the table talking about what our respective roles have been, and what effect and what the impact of that has been,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Hutto addressed the need for students to pursue careers in fields that have a shortage of workers.

“In our workforce, we need certain occupations more than we need other occupations. In order to get that done, we’re going to have to have the universities not only offering the classes, offering the incentives to incentivize those students to go into the fields where we need them,” Hutto said.

“Health care, education, those things that may not sound to them at 18 like something they’d want to do, but actually would be a better school option for them than coming out of school with at $200,000 student debt and no job,” Hutto said.

“I hope that CHE (Commission on Higher Education) will take on more of its coordinating role, get the universities together and look at what occupations we need, and then set about trying to figure out which ones are going to educate in those particular fields,” Hutto said.

Cobb-Hunter said higher education is vital in industry retention.

“We have got realize that we are not going to be successful at retaining industries in this state. Recruiting is fine, but what is our retention record for industries?” she asked.

“Businesses are not going to remain, in my opinion, in a state where the workforce is not educated, and where the state has not shown commitment to a trained educated workforce,” Cobb-Hunter said.

K-12 or K-16?

Matthews' message was similar to Hutto’s regarding coordination in the education system in preparing students for the workforce. Matthews took it a step further and included K-12 education.

“Education to me is like tax reform. You cannot do it in isolation. We’ve got a system that is governing K-12, got a tech system that is independent, and got a college system that is independent,” Matthews said referring to the Commission on Higher Education and the S.C. Tech College System.

“We need somehow to unite and look at K-16,” Matthews said. According to Matthews, K-16 would mean public schools and colleges and universities work as one unit.

Matthews said coordination in K-16 would allow officials to “find out where the hiccups are, find out where the inefficiencies are and try to correct that.

“There has to be somebody looking at some oversight and trying to force them to be much more efficient at interconnecting,” Matthews said.

Matthews also addressed the funding issue that exists within the state’s education system, specifically the lack of funding for rural counties and rural school districts.

“Poverty is the biggest problem. Until you understand the cost to educate a kid of poverty is a little bit different, and not only poverty but it’s the clustering of poverty that creates major problems in education,” Matthews said.

“When you talk about funding, you talk about federal money. A lot of that money you talk about is federal money, it’s not necessarily state money, and the federal money looks different when you have a cluster of poverty,” Matthews said.

Matthews said funding provided to districts that are directly in or closely neighbor urban areas is vastly different than what is provided to rural areas. He stated that the difference in funding impacts several components.

“It is totally different in facilities. They have no money to do those creative things," he said of rural districts. “If we’re going to change this system I think education reform is more important than tax reform because that’s fundamental to the growth and future of this state,” Matthews said.

Cobb-Hunter said better funding for rural districts is essential.

“If we are going to really delve into the issue of public education and adequate funding for public education, we’ve got to take the blinders off,” she said.

“We’ve got to develop a thicker skin as legislators and not worry about pointing fingers as much as all of us collectively agreeing that we’ve got to do a better job across the board consistently in every district to ensure that every kid is being educated properly regardless of his or her zip code,” she said.

“I’m afraid that’s not happening now,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Cobb-Hunter said she supports school district consolidation -- something that is happening in Orangeburg County and something she thinks should happen statewide.

“We’ve got to bite the bullet and consolidate school districts statewide. It makes no sense in a small state like this for us to have as many school districts as we have,” she said.

“And until elected officials who have the authority to do so find the intestinal fortitude to take that action, then we will be here 10 years from now, I am afraid, having this same conversation,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Hutto said change is needed in how S.C. education issues are tackled.

“The way we’ve always done it hasn’t been working, and we’ve got to come up with some new approaches,” Hutto said.

“It’s going to take a lot of work. We’ve got poverty in some of our counties where they just can’t afford new facilities. Yes, we need to consolidation, we need to talk about regional schools, and we need to talk about what’s best for the children,” Hutto said.

“The one thing that we absolutely owe to every student is a quality, qualified teacher in every classroom, and we don’t have that right now,” Hutto said.

“Stop operating in a vacuum. Stop failing to connect the dots."

Cobb-Hunter addressed teacher retention.

“All of this conversation about rural schools and rural school districts, I don’t care how much you raise the teacher salary. You can call the teacher whatever you want,” she said.

“But if you are thinking that you will recruit a teacher to go into some of these poorer, rural school districts where the quality of life, amenities and everything else that people are used to and want to have in their community, when those things are absent that impacts your ability to recruit,” Cobb-Hunter said.


Education
top story
Claflin recognized as January's 'School of the Month' by Tom Joyner Foundation

Claflin University is January's “School of the Month," a title given to universities by the Tom Joyner Foundation that will result in monetary aid to students.

The foundation recognizes and partners with colleges and universities in fundraising efforts. This is not the first time Claflin has partnered with the foundation, and Rev. Whittaker V. Middleton, vice president of Institutional Advancement, has an idea why.

“We were selected because of our participation. This is the third time we have participated. We have a long-standing relationship with the Tom Joyner Foundation. So, that is one of the reasons we were selected,” Middleton said.

“The second reason, and probably the most important, is we were selected because we have a track record of raising a lot of monies from alumni,” he said.

Middleton noted that according to U.S. News & World Report, Claflin ranks first in alumni giving among all Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“They’re coming in and saying, 'Claflin, we want to partner with you and hopefully as we go out and approach your alumni, your faculty, your staff, your students, and also the community at-large, we believe the people will respond,'” he said.

The recognition by the Tom Joyner Foundation is not exclusive to the month of January 2019.

Barbara Chappell, who is the Claflin University liaison with the Tom Joyner Foundation, detailed the length of the partnership. 

Chappell noted that a Day of Giving was held on Dec. 6, 2018 to kick start the fundraising campaign.

“We will be raising money for the program, through the program all year long. Those funds will be part of our 2019 school of the month campaign,” she said.

“Throughout the year, we will be having special events, online competitions, in-person events also to raise money throughout the year,” Chappell said.

“If alumni or friends of the university make a gift of $2,500 or more, there will be an opportunity for them to come and actually present their gift in person or during a radio presentation,” Middleton added.

The goal for the university is to raise $125,000, Chappell said. Last month, $20,000 was raised.

“Social media will be used tremendously in this campaign,” Middleton noted.

He said the use of social media will hopefully yield a high response from the younger Claflin alumni.

“We’re hoping that with this program, it may generate a lot of support from some of the younger alumni and get them to begin giving,” he said.

The funds that are raised have already been designated to directly aid the university’s students, according to Middleton.

“We are raising monies for scholarships. Scholarships for needy and deserving students,” he said.

The funds raised will go toward the FOCUS 100 scholarship fund that aids Claflin students. “FOCUS 100 stands for Friends of Claflin University Students,” Middleton said.

Chappell cited several ways to get involved in the campaign, including by:

  • Making gifts -- online by credit card, by check or by automatic drafts.
  • Volunteering to serve as Crowdfunding Captains.
  • Spreading the word through social media.

To make a mobile pledge, text ClaflinPanther to 41444 to donate via credit card.

For Crowdfunding, text ClaflinPanther to 71777 to donate or become a Fundraiser for Claflin. Visit the Foundation’s Crowdfunding Page to learn more.

To donate online, visit TomJoynerFoundation.org/donate and select Claflin University in the drop-down box.

To mail a donation, checks must be sent and made payable to the Tom Joyner Foundation, Re: Claflin, P.O. Box 630495, Irving, Texas, 75063-0495.


Crime-and-courts
Orangeburg police: Man shot 5 times, 18-year-old charged

An 18-year-old is accused of shooting a man five times on Wednesday.

Jy-quez Tereon Koger of 370 George Pickett Street is facing one count each of attempted murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

A woman told officers that she, her friend and the victim arrived at the park near Tucker Street to smoke marijuana, according to an Orangeburg Department of Public Safety incident report.

She said each of them exited the vehicle and the victim entered the park to break up a fight.

She then heard five gunshots and saw the victim walking toward her. He appeared to be injured.

When the victim returned to the vehicle, she drove him to the hospital.

The victim told officers that his little brother told him about someone wanting to fight his little sister, the report said.

He told officers that when he arrived at the park, the fight was already in progress and he attempted to break it up.

Warrants state the victim suffered five gunshot wounds, with one bullet remaining lodged near his liver.

Orangeburg Municipal Judge Virgin Johnson denied Koger’s bond on Friday morning.

If convicted, Koger faces up to 30 years in prison.


Session to see new rules, new faces

COLUMBIA — The 2019 legislative session in South Carolina will start with a promise to overhaul the education system in South Carolina and about an extra $1 billion to spend.

It will also start with new faces leading key committees in the House and new rules in the Senate that leaders think will help maintain the uniqueness of the body whose roots go back 300 years to the South Carolina Royal Council while making the modern chamber run more efficiently.

The 123rd session of the South Carolina General Assembly begins at noon Tuesday and is scheduled for 18 weeks. Already, about 450 bills have been filed in the House and 300 in the Senate as the two-year session begins.

Here are the big issues and the big changes as the 105 Republicans and 63 Democrats (with two vacancies) return to Columbia.

More money

Hovering over all the Legislature's actions this year is an extra $1 billion in the state's accounts that lawmakers can spend.

That extra money will drive many decisions, from whether to give teachers and other state employees raises to improving neglected items like equipment for law enforcement or how to restructure the state's income, property, and sales tax systems.

Gov. Henry McMaster wants to cut income taxes and stop taxing military retirement payments, his spokesman Brian Symmes said.

He will likely find allies in the Legislature's most conservative members.

"Just because you collect it doesn't mean you have to spend it," said Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort who has championed tax cuts and reform during his decade in Columbia.

Education

House Speaker Jay Lucas surprised many last month when he said education would be his top legislative priority this year.

Lucas' efforts, combined with an ambitious project by The Post and Courier newspaper has lawmakers promising to do something to improve South Carolina schools. Teachers are loosely organizing too and promise more pressure if lawmakers don't act.

Lucas has yet to provide specifics. Other Republican House leaders say bills will be introduced next week with details. McMaster's spokesman said the governor also thinks education needs to be a top priority.

If the debate that finally led to an increased gas tax to improved roads is any indication, it may take years to build consensus, especially if spending additional money is involved.

Republicans have started to suggest the problems are more in how money is spent. Democrats said if lawmakers take a wholesale look at education, they need to include increasing poverty in rural areas and how school systems with poorer and minority students have always lagged behind.

"If we can't agree on the facts, how are we going to solve the problem?" said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat from Orangeburg who at 27 years is now the House's longest serving member.

The easiest, quickest education bill might be a pay raise for teachers, although a Republican from Horry County wants to take it a step further. Sen. Greg Hembree wants to pass a bill giving a 10 percent raise over three years to all state employees who make less than $100,000 a year.

Santee Cooper

Dealing with the fallout of the multibillion-dollar failure of the construction of two nuclear reactors dominated the 2018 legislative session. And lawmakers only dealt with what will likely be the simpler half of the problem.

After cutting private utility South Carolina Electric & Gas rates, clearing the way for its parent company Scana Corp. to be bought out and passing changes to regulatory structure, lawmakers can turn toward state-owned Santee Cooper, which owned 45 percent of the doomed project and is now around $9 billion in debt.

The governor wants to sell Santee Cooper — for a fair price. But some lawmakers likely feel a nostalgic tie to the Great Depression era utility and its role in 85 years of economic development. Power rates for Santee Cooper customers are likely going up significantly, and there is no guarantee there will be a buyer or an acceptable offer.

"Scana is the most difficult thing I've dealt with," Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield said of his 12 years in the Legislature. "Santee Cooper is more difficult."

New committee leaders

Two of the most influential House committees have new faces.

The surprise new leader is Rep. Murrell Smith taking over the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. Speaker Lucas knocked Rep. Brian White off the committee after eight years as its leader. White said Lucas told him Republican leaders wanted a chairman who would better promote the party's agenda.

"My cellphone's voice mail is full for the first time," Smith said of his new popularity.

The House Judiciary Committee also has a new chairman. Republican Rep. Peter McCoy of Charleston, in just his eighth year in the House, takes over.

New rules

A change in the state constitution means a big change in Senate rules. The lieutenant governor no longer presides over the state Senate.

Senators will pass new rules Tuesday. Massey said they will likely approve a senator to be president of the body, and that senator cannot be chairman of a committee in a bid to keep one lawmaker from having too much power.

New-ish governor

Lawmakers expect a better relationship with Gov. McMaster, who was elected to a full term last November after finishing the final two years of Gov. Nikki Haley's term after she became U.N. ambassador.

Last year, McMaster worried about a Republican primary challenge. This year, he is free to fashion his agenda without that kind of political pressure.

Both Democrats and Republicans praised him as someone who puts South Carolina before his own ambitions and listens — traits they have said weren't as evident in the last 16 years under the past two Republican governors.

"He loves South Carolina more than he loves himself," said Republican House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill.

McMaster can separate his own feelings from what is best for South Carolina, his spokesman Symmes said.

"The governor doesn't take any disagreements personally," Symmes said.