The Democratic candidate for governor says he wants to pay South Carolina teachers more and overhaul a controversial 2006 tax law that, critics say, hurt many schools.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden also wants to expand 4-year-old kindergarten statewide and increase taxpayer funding of public colleges in exchange for a cap in tuition costs.
The biggest problems facing South Carolina “are education and a broken tax system,” Sheheen told The State in an interview. “I am forceful and passionate in my belief that the two are linked, and we should reform them together.
“If we’re going to change things, we have to get back to these fundamental issues: higher teacher pay, smaller class sizes and a child’s opportunities not (being) dependent on where they were born,” said Sheheen, who will face Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and three others in November.
As a legislator, Sheheen has backed proposals to reform the way the state raises money for schools and to increase teacher pay. Last year, for instance, he introduced a bill to expand into every school district the state’s free 4K program. This year, the General Assembly passed a similar bill, expanding the kindergarten program into more low-income school districts.
The Camden attorney’s schools agenda, announced Monday, follows more than a year of Haley staking a claim to the education issue, historically a Democratic cause.
Last year, Haley met with lawmakers, teachers, school administrators and business leaders. Then, in January, she included about $180 million in education proposals in her executive budget.
Haley said she saw her plan as the first step in a multi-year commitment to public education.
In response to Sheheen’s proposal, Haley campaign spokeswoman Chaney Adams focused on the Republican’s “sweeping education-reform package, which won widespread praise from educators and bipartisan support for its passage this year.” Haley’s proposals will “lift up students in all parts of our state, especially in traditionally overlooked rural and poor areas, with a critical focus on reading skills and technology,” she said.
Sheheen said Haley’s education plan smacked of election-year politics, adding that education has been the government service hit hardest by Haley’s veto pen.
From 2011-13, Haley vetoed $110 million in public education spending, including $95 million in her first year in office, The State reported last year.
‘Either in it together or we’re not’
If elected governor, Sheheen said he would work to raise S.C. teacher pay — which averaged about $47,900 in 2012-13, according to the National Center on Education Statistics — to the national average of $56,400 in five or six years.
Sheheen said he also would push for smaller class sizes and encourage teachers to teach without “spending the bulk of their time in the classroom worried about a standardized test.”
On higher education, Sheheen said he would push for the state to spend about $60 million a year more on for public colleges and universities in exchange for slowing the growth of tuition. The money would come from the state’s revenue growth, Sheheen said.
Sheheen also said he wants to reform Act 388, the state’s 2006 tax overhaul that critics say led to funding inequities among school districts.
That law, which Sheheen opposed, exempted owner-occupied homes from paying property taxes for school operating costs, placing that burden instead on other properties, including businesses.
Sheheen said he would abolish local property taxes for school operating expenses, replacing them with what he said would be a low, statewide property tax on nonresidential properties. That way, poorer rural districts can benefit from other areas experiencing economic growth, he said.
Tax reform could determine whether the state has “an equitable school system across the state,” Sheheen said. “South Carolina is either in it together or we’re not. Either the state is going to continue to move forward together or we’re not.”
Haley supported Act 388 but has endorsed comprehensive tax reform.
Sheheen and Haley also face independent petition candidate Tom Ervin, a former Greenville judge and legislator; Steve French, a Libertarian from Charleston; and Morgan Bruce Reeves, a United Citizens candidate from Winnsboro, on the November ballot.