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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Revising school accountability deserves bipartisan support
Posted on Tue, Feb. 26, 2008

Guest Columnist
I am a fiscal and religious conservative who almost always votes Republican.
So I have been more than a little uncomfortable recently as a few of my
fellow Republicans in the S.C. House of Representatives have tried to score
political points over what should be a bipartisan effort to improve South
Carolina's public schools through revision of our school accountability

It's no secret to anyone that South Carolina's 10-year-old Education
Accountability Act is in need of an update. Teachers and administrators aren't
happy with PACT because it provides too little "diagnostic" information on
individual students. Test results come back to schools too late to be of any
real use to either educators or parents. Annual school report cards are
rarely read past the front page by parents. When parents do read further,
they're very confused about what the information means.

Last summer, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex appointed two
nonpartisan task forces composed of 150 teachers, school administrators,
school board members, legislators, business leaders and representatives from
colleges and universities. As one of those involved, I can honestly say that
our many days of work were devoid of any sort of political game-playing or
agenda. Our charge from Superintendent Rex was to improve student testing
and strengthen the Accountability Act. We presented him with an extensive
set of recommendations designed to do just that.

Sadly, House Speaker Bobby Harrell has led partisan attacks in press
releases and newspaper articles on the task forces' recommendations.

Dr. Rex shared the task force recommendations with House Education Committee
Chairman Bob Walker, whose staff drafted a 42-page bill that was quickly
endorsed by 40 Republican and 30 Democratic co-sponsors. This was a bill
provided by the Republican leadership, but it possessed bipartisan support.

Then the wheels came off. The proposed bill's filing was postponed as
Speaker Harrell told news media that 95 percent of the bill was defective
because it would "dismantle" the Accountability Act. Then, one week later,
much of the original bipartisan bill reappeared and was filed. According to
the House Republican Caucus, it was now a "Republican bill" that was
virtually stripped of Democratic co-sponsors. The bill was portrayed as
removing any liberal influences. Instead of providing the kind of bipartisan
leadership South Carolinians want and so desperately need, the speaker chose
to invoke the Roman maxim of divide et impera - divide and conquer.

In his column published in several newspapers around the state, Speaker
Harrell has stated that the original version of the bill removed ratings of
school performance with the intent of substituting "subjective and easily
manipulated" measures. It did not. He also asserted that the bill did away
with end-of-year high school U.S. history tests altogether. It did not. In
recent press releases, he characterized the recommendations from the task
force that were included in the original bill as an attempt to "water down"
the Accountability Act. Such mischaracterizations are disappointing.

In recent years, Speaker Harrell has projected himself as a friend and
defender of public educators, and rightly so. Unfortunately, his dismissive
attitude toward the task forces' recommendations betrays this. Members of
the two task forces included public school educators who over the past
decade have personally wrestled with the strengths and weaknesses of the
original Education Accountability Act. Ironically, many if not most of the
new features in what the speaker touted as a purely "Republican bill" came
straight from the original bipartisan recommendations from the two task

Rather than creating doubts about the intent and legitimacy of the task
forces' proposals, it would be much wiser for the speaker and other
legislative leaders to promote a genuine discussion centered upon the merits
of the proposed task forces' changes.

With the revision of the Accountability Act, the General Assembly and all
South Carolinians have an opportunity to improve and enhance accountability
and public education in our state. Over the last 10 years, one of the
greatest obstacles to effective accountability and academic success has been
the inability of public educators, legislators and local communities to
develop a sustained level of trust for one another. This lack of trust has
prevented the development of a shared vision and the momentum so necessary
for success.

The lesson in all of this should be clear. While it may be easier to divide
people as a short-term tactical maneuver, it becomes difficult if not
impossible to unite them after political, religious or racial polarization
has occurred.

If we are to forge a common agreement on how to promote academic excellence
through effective academic accountability, the process of revising the
Accountability Act must promote trust among all South Carolinians. It would
be wise for each of us to consider that the character of the political
process will ultimately influence the success or failure of improving South
Carolina's public schools as much as any revision that we will ever make to
the law.

Dr. Gummerson is superintendent of Lexington School District 3. From 1998 to
2004 he served on the Education Oversight Committee as the representative
for Govs. David Beasley and Jim Hodges.

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