Issac Bailey | South Carolina should follow Haley’s lead

01/31/2013 5:14 PM

01/31/2013 5:15 PM

Gov. Nikki Haley was busy this week finding more reasons to block a Medicaid expansion through the federal health reform law.

And she spent time paying homage to the state’s and the Grand Strand’s top industry, tourism.

But her leadership on what should become a statewide discussion on funding inequities in the school system has the potential to do more to curb violence than a gaggle of security guards armed with AK-47s.

It is also the key to improving the economy and health outcomes for a state that has among the lowest average yearly wages in the country and ranks too high on the risk of heart disease, stroke and obesity.

Haley grew up on the wrong side of the inequality line in Bamberg County, where she experienced first-hand the results of a funding scheme that relies too heavily upon a local area’s commercial and economic prowess. That formula has always led to some areas being able to provide their children with solid schools and others the bare minimum – and sometimes not even that – all of which is the heart of a lawsuit that has been languishing in the court system for two decades.

I’ve disagreed with the governor on a variety of issues, including her baffling decision to refuse billions of federal dollars through the Affordable Care Act that could provide insurance to up to 500,000 poor people in the state while creating economic activity and jobs.

But her decision to start a long overdue discussion about the unequal opportunities in our school system should be applauded.

It would have been easier to have focused on school choice, a favorite issue of many of her primary supporters. That’s where her predecessor, Mark Sanford, spent much of his political capital.

She is a proponent of school choice but understands that the public education system can’t be abandoned, that allowing a small number of kids to attend private schools with public dollars might help, but is not a cure-all.

Her push also has the potential to upset the better-off school districts that believe it is critical to fight for every dollar from the state, even though the local tax bases upon which they rely provide their children educational opportunities that prepare them well for the future, while poorer districts don’t have that luxury.

The quality of education you receive in South Carolina is too dependent on where you happen to be born. Haley recognizes that. She probably also knows that educational disparity leads to economic disparity, which harms the state’s overall economic prowess.

Myrtle Beach had the lowest average annual wages in the country in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When a poor mother (or father) has to work multiple minimum wage (or near-minimum wage jobs) for long hours every day, she has less time to spend with her children, leaving them with less supervision.

That family breakdown shows up in school in the form of increased discipline problems and weak study habits.

And that cycle has been repeating itself, unequal educational opportunities leading to high pockets of poverty, which show up in higher rates of incarceration and bad health that drain the state’s budget and residents’ quality of life.

Haley has hit on the central issue of our time. I hope what she began this week continues – and bears fruit.

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