It wasn’t realistic to expect any game-changer education laws while South Carolina was still struggling to get kids back into the classroom after last year’s COVID-19 school closings.
But our state still made surprising progress this year toward providing all children with a decent education.
The legislature finally passed a bill to let the state education superintendent remove the school board in districts she has to take over, rather than having to hand an improved district back to the people who were either incapable of or unwilling to run it properly in the first place. Lawmakers passed a bill to let school districts work with nonprofits to operate more than one school of innovation like Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood.
Less noticed, South Carolina continued to make progress toward reducing its still-too-large number of tiny school districts, which often are concentrated in our poorest rural counties and rank consistently among the most challenged in our state.
A year after the legislature merged Clarendon County districts 1 and 3, lawmakers passed S.648 this year to pull the county’s holdout district, Clarendon 2, into the mix. The first consolidation takes effect July 1; the second in July 2022. Combined with last year’s merger of Hampton County’s two tiny school districts, that means the legislature has merged five districts into two in barely more than a year.
And there’s hope for more. The Senate passed S.691 in April to merge Barnwell districts 19 and 29 and passed S.771 in May to merge Bamberg 1 and 2. Both bills can be considered when the legislature convenes a limited-agenda mini-session next week, and the state Education Department expects them to pass once a few details are nailed down.
This mini-wave of consolidations started in 2019, when the legislature agreed to actively promote them by offering a few million dollars to districts to cover one-time expenses that can accompany a merger. One reason the state expects the Barnwell and Bamberg mergers to go through is that the districts have accepted merger funding.
Even more notably, S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman announced this spring that she was merging the tiny Florence District 4 into Florence 1. Spearman declared a state of emergency in Florence 4 in 2018 and took it over, but a state law adopted in 2016 gives her several options beyond running a troubled district herself, including merging it with another district.
A spokesman told us that while the district had made progress academically and financially, “the financial situation with a district of less than 700 students is not sustainable, so we feel that consolidation with the nearby Florence 1 district will provide solid financial footing and provide the needed opportunities for students.”
As Spearman wrote in announcing her decision: “The administration costs alone take away dramatically from dollars that should be going to teachers and students in the classroom. Students suffer from the lack of course offerings, career development programs, and limited extra-curricular activities."
Predictably, the move upset some local officials. But even school board members who objected told the Morning News of Florence that their objection was to the process, not the merger itself.
Consolidating districts doesn’t save a huge amount of money, but as Spearman noted, the overhead costs are tremendous in tiny districts, and every dollar that can be saved on administration can be plowed into the programs for students.
At least as important, consolidation helps eliminate funding inequities between districts and increases the talent pool for school board members and top administrators, and that in turn helps save students from school board members whose primary goal is to provide good jobs for their unqualified friends and relatives, and from superintendents who aren’t creative or energetic enough for the job.
The potential benefits of merging tiny districts are so clear that the state Supreme Court suggested it when it ordered the legislature to provide a decent education to all children. The justices even said the districts that sued the state in the Abbeville vs. South Carolina were partly at fault for their poor performance because instead of merging, they “opted for a course of self-preservation, placing all blame for the blighted state of education in their districts at the feet” of the state.
If the Barnwell and Bamberg consolidations go through, that will reduce the number of districts with fewer than 1,000 students from eight when the state first offered incentives to just two: Greenwood 51 with 881 students and McCormick County Schools with 594 students. Of course, we’ll still have 73 regular school districts (plus a handful of specialty schools and two charter school districts, which is one too many), several with fewer than 2,000 students. But it’s better than the 79 we had two years ago, better still than the 91 we had a quarter-century ago.
But for a state with just 46 counties and not a penny we can afford to squander, it’s still too many. That means lawmakers must continue their incremental, individualized progress to combine more districts — and take lessons in persistence from what is in effect a microcosm of the incremental, individualized progress that is essential to reaching all the students who need better educational opportunities than we’re providing them.
This guest editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.