South Carolina’s Haley pitches education reform package


Gov. Nikki Haley poses with seventh-grader Meredith Goss, who also got Haley’s signature, during Haley’s visit to the Daniel Island School to discuss bullying. (Grace Beahm/Post and Courier)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will propose spending $160 million on new education programs aimed at low-income children and those learning to speak English, a modest move toward an ambitious education reform package Haley laid out early in her term but has yet to complete.

Haley’s proposal, delivered Wednesday before a group of lawmakers and educators in West Columbia, S.C., would provide an extra $97 million in funding for schools in the poorest school districts. The plan would revise the formula that allocates state education dollars to give an edge to districts with high levels of students eligible for either Medicaid or free or reduced-price lunches, two leading indicators of childhood poverty.

The plan would create a $29.5 million fund for reading coaches, one of whom would be stationed in every state public elementary school. Three hundred schools where a high percentage of students don’t meet basic state standards would receive fully-funded reading coaches, while other schools would be offered half funding that the district would have to match.

Haley also wants to spend $29.3 million to improve Internet bandwidth and wireless connectivity. South Carolina has some of the slower broadband speeds in the country; three school districts operate at less than 100 megabits per second, Haley’s office said. The poorest districts in the state will receive twice as much state funding per student as the wealthiest districts, according to Haley’s proposal.

In an interview with The Washington Post late last year, Haley said education reform would be a top priority in the 2014 legislative session.

“The big bear in the room is K through 12, and it’s the one thing we have to focus on if we are going to continue to be successful in bringing these highly technical jobs to the state,” Haley said. Too often, she said, students are being promoted past third grade without being able to read.

“They’re pushing kids out that can’t read. And when you’re sending Johnny out of third grade knowing he can’t read, the weight those teachers felt was overwhelming,” Haley said. “If they can’t read by third grade, they can’t go forward on their science and social studies.”

Students who don’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school than their peers who can read, Haley’s office said.

South Carolina students ranked 42nd nationally for the percentage of fourth graders scoring at or above “basic” levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test in 2013. The state ranks below the national average in NAEP scores among both 4th and 8th grade students, in both reading and math.

Most of the $160 million in new spending Haley is proposing will come from new revenues the state expects to take in. As tax receipts have rebounded from the depths of the recession, the state has estimated it will have an additional $200 million to spend next year. About $30 million — the money for improved broadband — would come from the state’s capital reserve fund.

Haley spent a year traveling the state soliciting ideas on education reform. Given her touchy relationship with the state legislature, the governor had been reluctant to offer her own plan without winning buy-in from others. “What I knew is, if I threw a policy out there, they’d shoot at it,” she said in an interview.

Education advocates on the right were critical of the modest size of Haley’s reform plan. Some on the right pointed to Haley’s campaign promises in 2010, when she pledged to change the state’s primary funding formula and to privatize the state school bus fleet. Neither of those goals have been met.

Several education groups told The State newspaper they were cautiously optimistic, though they said they needed to review details before rendering a final verdict. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), Haley’s likely opponent in her bid for a second term, has also made education reform a top priority.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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