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South Carolina is under court order to improve the quality of education in its rural school districts. Doing so is the key to development in the poorest and least developed parts of the state.

Bowman Sen. John Matthews recently told Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5 trustees how the Senate intends to deal with education inequality. Matthews is one of a five-member team appointed by the Senate to come up with solutions in the wake of a 2014 S.C. Supreme Court ruling that the state has failed to provide a “minimally adequate” education for children in rural and poor counties.

A top priority is attracting and keeping good teachers in rural districts that do not pay well and offer too little compared to urban and wealthier districts in measures of quality of life. School facilities must also be improved.

And while critics like to point out that money won’t improve education, Matthews is right in the assessment that adequate funding is essential.

Money, for example, is the main thing needed to attract teachers to the poorer districts. On average, teacher salaries in South Carolina’s rural districts are about $5,000 less than in the state’s top 10 districts.

Spending money to make substantive change can pay off for South Carolina.

New research from Stanford economist Eric Hanushek finds states that invest in school improvement can reap big rewards over the next several decades by improving the skills of their workforce.

Hanushek calculates major economic gain over the next 80 years for states that invest now in school improvement.

• If all states improved schools enough to increase student achievement to the level of the nation’s top state, Minnesota, the overall gains would be $76 trillion, or more than four times the current national GDP. By 2095, the GDP would be 36 percent larger than without these school-quality improvements.

• If each state instead meets the achievement level of the best state in its region, gains would still amount to roughly $35 trillion, more than twice the nation’s current GDP.

• If each state achieved basic level academic proficiency over a 10-year period, gains would equal about $32 trillion.

To estimate the impact of knowledge capital on GDP, Hanusek and his associates compared the rate of GDP growth from 1970 to 2010 with the average knowledge capital of a state’s workers. For calculations of economic impact, their study estimated the expected growth of a state’s economy if the current knowledge capital of workers were to remain unchanged and compared the growth path to the one that would be achieved with better schools.

The impact of a better-educated population is not immediate, as it takes time for students to finish their education, to enter the workforce and to realize their full potential. Therefore, Hanusek discounted future gains to present value so any near-term gains are given more weight than gains in the more distant future.

Making those near-term gains are vital in South Carolina. We must quickly reverse the trend of too few educated people even as we immediately address training adults who have not achieved adequate education.

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A Lumina Foundation study found just 40 percent of South Carolina's working-age adults — those 25 to 64 years old — have an industry certification or degree beyond high school, ranking the state 40th nationwide. Twelve percent lack even a high school diploma.

S.C. Education Oversight Committee Director Melanie Barton recently told a Senate panel the state must ramp up efforts to educate and retrain adults or jobs will vanish.

"That's why it's getting harder and harder for businesses and industry to attract people," she said. "Even if we graduated 100 percent of our kids ready for college tomorrow, it's still not enough. You've got to address the adults."

While the Legislature is working on rural school improvement, it is also advancing legislation that aims to match training with businesses' workforce needs.

Fixing roads has been identified as a top priority in South Carolina in 2016 and beyond. Substantive education improvement is every bit as important.

Legislators promised ahead of the 2016 session that real action would be taken on education in the wake of the court decision on rural schools.

With economists such as Hanushek saying all-out efforts at school improvement could reap rewards up to growing South Carolina’s GDP by 41 percent by 2095, the decisions being made today matter a lot.

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