Scoppe: To fix SC schools, start with governance

I’M NO EXPERT on the best techniques for teaching children how to learn, and a huge part of improving the education we provide to all children is going to involve making appropriate changes to our public school curricula.

But I know a little something about how government can work, and a lot of governmental changes need to be made alongside, or perhaps even in advance of, those curriculum changes, as we finally come to terms with the fact that we are not providing a decent education to all children, and that our state will never reach its potential until we do.

In fact, most of you know about the sorts of changes we need. They’re the commonsense reforms that come from across the political spectrum but that can’t seem to get any traction in the Legislature because this one is from the left and that one is from the right, and on top of that, we’ve had to fight for so long over the incessant push from outside interests to steal public support and public money from our public schools that legislators haven’t had the energy to work on ways to actually improve the education that we offer to the children of this state.

It’s time for that to stop. Now that the Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to meet its constitutional obligation to provide all children with an opportunity to get a decent education, it’s time to start making those changes to authority and responsibility and power that will make it easier to deliver on that decent education.

Read my initial column about the SC Supreme Court’s ruling in Abbeville County School District v SC

And the way to do that is for lawmakers of good faith to combine the best ideas from the right and left into a politically powerful package of reforms.

That package would give principals more flexibility to get rid of teachers who aren’t up to the job, a favorite for the right. And no, I’m not talking about teachers who can’t bring a child from two years below grade level to two years above grade level in a year; I’m talking about teachers whose students actually lose ground. Likewise, it would pay teachers more when they produce the results we want, another favorite of the right that might or might not improve education but could attract better teachers, and would just be fair.

From the left, it would pay those successful teachers more still to leave the comfort of their advanced-placement classrooms in middle-class schools to teach remedial classes to poor kids in poor communities, who started out behind because they weren’t exposed to the educational enrichment opportunities that most of us take for granted. It also would free teachers from non-teaching tasks, which would give them more time to focus on students, and more reason to remain on the job.

From the right, it would encourage more charter and magnet schools and allow parents to send their kids to any public school, and it would let schools spend money on the programs that work best, rather than dictating that this pot of money can be spent only on this legislatively preferred reading program, while that pot of money must be spent on that Education Department-preferred reading program.

And from the left, it would rewrite that funding formula to acknowledge how much more it costs to educate a poor child in a poor school than a wealthy child in a wealthy school. Gov. Nikki Haley started us down that road last year, but we’ve got a ways to go.

From there, the reform package would go to meddling — tackling deeply sensitive problems that few on the left or right are willing even to acknowledge, but which are essential to making schools work.

It might first tip-toe in and centralize administrative functions at the highest feasible level — whether that means several schools, regional consortia of districts or even the whole state — and in some cases combine entire schools or districts.

After that, it would tackle district consolidation head on. While that can save on administrative overhead — particularly in small districts — that’s not the main reason we need to consolidate. And the main reason isn’t to improve course offerings, and make it easier to get the right sorts of specialists into every district — although those are benefits as well.

The main reason to consolidate districts is to increase the talent pool for school board members and top administrators. It’s to save us from school boards who treat the school district like a political-patronage factory, and superintendents who aren’t creative or energetic enough, because what superintendent who isn’t from there wants to run a tiny little district?

Read more about why consolidation makes sense

And until we manage to do that, or when even that isn’t enough —when local school officials either can’t or won’t get the job done — our state has to be willing to step in and save those children. It’s something we’ve rarely tried to do, because our legislators see this as a matter of local control — which seems perverse, since they’re more than happy to get involved in the operation of cities and counties, which really are local, and since it is the state that the constitution tasks with providing a decent education to all children.

But maybe it’s not perverse; maybe the job is just too hard. When we’ve sort of tried to do it, it’s gone very badly, because local communities often are reluctant to accept the state’s lifeline, which they perversely see as interference.

Whatever the reason for our legislators’ reluctance, they have to get over it, and they have to figure out a way to get buy-in rather than hostility from the communities whose children they are trying to help.

That’s something else I don’t know how to do, but I know it has to be done. Because if it isn’t, then all the best curricula and enticements for teachers and principals won’t make a bit of difference, because the local power structure will undermine the best programs and chase off the best people.