Funding inequity among South Carolina's school districts has been debated for years by educators, lawmakers and parents. Should anything be done to correct it, they have asked? And if so, how should the state reform its decades-old funding formula to more fairly distribute state money?
Poor, rural districts, fed up with the talk but no action, sued over the issue 20 years ago. They still haven't gotten an answer. The lawsuit is still pending before the S.C. Supreme Court.
It is in this vein that we applaud Gov. Nikki Haley's education reform initiative that actually acts on the problem. It makes a significant change in the way the state distributes one of its main pots of education money, targeting more dollars for students who cost more to educate. That includes poor students; gifted students; students whose native language is not English, students with disabilities and students who struggle with reading.
The plan is not a panacea for the state's education problems. For example, some of the state's most impoverished school districts, including Allendale County, already spend a great deal of money per student but still routinely post low standardized test scores. The plan doesn't address the underlying issues that are causing that problem.
The proposal also won't help poor districts replace deteriorating school buildings with new ones. It's won't convince our best teachers to move to and teach in our most challenged schools. And it doesn't alleviate the oppressive poverty and lack of parental support that makes it so difficult for many of our students to succeed.
But Haley's plan certainly is an initial step in the right direction, funneling more dollars to specific groups of students that research shows cost more to educate -- and doing so without regard to where in the state the student lives. The governor deserves praise for attempting to do something about an issue that has plagued our state for decades.
Still, the plan is a tough pill to swallow for the state's wealthier districts, including the Beaufort County School District. The district stands to lose nearly $700,000 next fiscal year because it has fewer of these subgroups of students than most other districts. The $700,000 would be redirected to the needy districts, according to the House's budget proposal. Fewer than 10 districts stand to lose money under the spending plan, including Charleston County that could see a decrease of more than $3 million and York District 4 that could lose about $1 million, according to the state Department of Education. The rest of the districts would receive funding boosts.
While we believe that, long term, it is appropriate for Beaufort County and the state's other wealthier districts to receive fewer EIA state dollars, we do not think it's fair or smart to do it this late in the fiscal year. These districts are already deep into planning their budgets and would have to start over.
And in Beaufort County's case, the district anticipates needing as much as a $10 million more, a 5 percent increase, from Beaufort County in the fiscal year that beings July 1. Adding a $700,000 state hit would surely hurt the district's plans of putting a tablet in the hands of every student in grades three through 12 by the end of next school year and converting all of it half-day prekindergarten classes into full-day classes.
We agree and applaud efforts by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to hold the wealthier districts harmless for a year or two, giving them time to adjust to the new fiscal reality.
To this end, Davis and others received assurances last week from the House, the governor's office and the Senate's Finance Committee on which Davis serves that whatever dollar figure is needed to hold the wealthier districts harmless next fiscal year will be budgeted. That will ensure the funding blow caused by Haley's funding reform won't wreak havoc on the districts' budgets or derail their plans. And it gives them crucial planning time to prepare for the hit when it eventually comes.
We hope the districts use the time wisely to prepare for fewer state dollars in future years.