When the S.C. General Assembly reconvenes later this month, education reform will receive the lion’s share of attention.
But there are several other big issues politicians in Columbia will wrangle over for the next few months.
Last week, members of the state’s press organizations met with a panel of legislators to learn more about some of the important matters going before this session of the General Assembly.
For example, legislators have the task of deciding how to spend a nearly $2 billion surplus in the state budget. This newfound money will certainly lead to a lot of debate about how to best spend it.
With state government flush with cash, this would be the perfect time for the General Assembly to consider South Carolina’s unfair, unstable and uncompetitive tax system.
For starters, I’d like to see the state’s sales tax slashed by at least 25 percent.
The future of Santee Cooper is likely to consume a fair amount of discussion this year.
The state-owned electric and water utility is struggling with a huge debt as a result of a $4 billion investment in a failed nuclear power plant.
Legislators at the Jan. 9 meeting said sentiment seems to be about 50-50 about selling the utility.
The Senate will take up debate on an 80-page education reform bill that passed the House last year and one of the key components involves teacher pay.
Last year, the state gave teachers a 6 percent pay increase and starting teachers a 10 percent pay increase. (Salaries of South Carolina teachers are slightly above the Southeastern average.)
Sen. Greg Hembree of Horry County, one of the leaders in the Senate on education reform, says he would like to get the state’s teacher pay to the national average.
In fact, he would like to see the state designate about $225 million of reoccurring surplus for teacher pay, which would translate into about a 7 percent increase.
Interestingly, his reasoning behind getting teachers’ salaries to the national average revolves around recruitment of young men and women into the teaching profession.
“Generally, more money won’t keep a teacher on the job, but more money can help recruit more young people into the profession,” said Hembree.
Over the summer, a group of legislators toured the state to get input from those in the teaching profession about what is most important to them.
They learned that teachers are more concerned about less testing of students, more planning time and having a lunch break away from students than they are about getting more money.
Hembree has studied the salary issue extensively and has determined that on an annualized basis the average teacher makes about $92,000 a year.
This includes health insurance and retirement benefits.
No, teachers don’t bring home that kind of money on a monthly basis, but when they retire teachers receive a nice income and full health benefits for the remainder of their lives.
That’s not too shabby in my humble opinion.
Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort made an interesting point that had me nodding in agreement.
South Carolina ranks about 24th in the nation on per pupil spending. Yet, the state ranks near the bottom of national rankings in student performance.
This tells me that simply throwing more money into the bottomless pit of public education is not the answer.
True reform can’t happen until economic opportunities improve for poorer areas of the state where poor student performance runs rampant.