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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Rex funding plan puts emphasis where it belongs: on poverty

Posted on Fri, Dec. 28, 2007
Associate Editor

EDUCATION Superintendent Jim Rex rolled out his “model for funding 21st century educational opportunity” to rave reviews at least from the people who were already on board with the main ideas it contained.

“Tremendous work,” gushed Sen. Wes Hayes, who leads a panel that has spent a year and a half trying to come up with its own plan to overhaul the state’s clunky education funding system.

“I think this may be a new day as far as public education in South Carolina, that we can get together and try to work this out,” Senate Education Chairman John Courson announced, noting that the plan was presented by Dr. Rex, a Democrat, and Lexington 1’s Karen Woodward, “the superintendent of one of the most conservative districts in South Carolina and one of the best.”

The proposal is smart because it tackles poverty head-on, acknowledging that teaching poor kids is the state’s most daunting, and important, challenge, and directing state funds to that task.

It’s significant because it marks the first time in 40 years that anyone has put forward a detailed plan to throw out the current school funding system and build a new one from scratch.

The goals are audacious.
“We don’t want to be known as the poverty state,” Dr. Woodward, who chaired the 40-person task force that wrote the plan, told Sen. Hayes’ panel earlier this month. “We want to be known as the state that tackles poverty.... We recognize that education is not the only piece (of the solution). However, we believe it is the central piece. It is the piece that gets people out of poverty.”

The plan has three core elements:
Providing full-day, 4K classes to all poor students whose parents want them to attend.
Adding poverty weights to the per-student funding formula, to provide extra money to teach poor students who have to be taught such basic skills as being able to count and distinguish colors that middle-class kids take for granted and more extra money in schools with high concentrations of poor students.

And providing state funds to build and renovate schools, with priority going to poor districts. Dr. Rex made the point of noting that even officials from the wealthiest districts insisted on favoring poor districts.

It is not a cheap plan, because it doesn’t reduce funding for rich districts. The task force report proposes phasing in 4K over two years, the poverty weighting over four years and the rest of the program over an unspecified period of time beginning by 2012. If the poverty weighting were in place this year, the state would be spending an extra $450 million on schools, or about 13 percent more than the current $3.5 billion. If the entire “adequacy program” were in place that’s a new way of defining how many teachers and administrators and support staff each school and district needs total state education spending would be about $5 billion.

But that’s a lot less than it would cost if the panel had taken the typical approach, which is to layer all its new plans on top of what already exists. (That’s the approach we take to our tax system, which is why it is likewise an antiquated, jumbled mess that needs to be rebuilt from scratch.) Instead, it proposes reallocating all but $100 million of current state school spending to help pay for the new approach.

The added benefit of this approach is that school funding would no longer be divided into 74 separate pots of money, with the Legislature dictating that this pot of money can be used only for gifted programs, that one for a reading program and not just any reading program but this reading program. School districts would have much more flexibility and the state would have much more power to intervene if they mismanage that flexibility.

As smart and significant as these proposals are, they aren’t particularly surprising. And that’s what is surprising. After Dr. Rex pulled such a coup earlier this year by getting nearly the entire education community to back his plan for public school choice, I expected him to roll out “the grand plan” marrying the best ideas from the political left and right. Although the report uses a lot of the buzz words from the right and seems to embrace a lot of the smartest ideas that are most closely associated with it, it stops short of actually proposing them.

It pushes for state-funded incentives to get teachers to go to poor schools. But it’s silent on the equally smart ideas of letting principals hire and fire the teachers they want and pay them according to their performance, rather than the number of degrees and years in the classroom.

It calls for removing some barriers to school district consolidation, so poor districts don’t lose state funding if they merge with richer districts, and richer districts aren’t penalized if average test results fall when they merge with poorer districts, for example.

But there are no sticks, or even carrots. Districts don’t lose anything if they don’t consolidate, and they don’t gain anything if they do; they simply aren’t penalized. Clearly, they shouldn’t be penalized for trying to be more efficient, but it’s hard to see how this plan would encourage any districts to act.

Still, Dr. Woodward repeatedly told Sen. Hayes’ committee that this report is a starting place not a be-all, end-all. That makes it an excellent vehicle for adding the missing ideas and then moving forward.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571. To read the task force’s report, go to and select “Latest Headlines.”

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