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SC Senate passes huge education bill; promises more to come

March 5, 2020 GMT
Several South Carolina state senators stand behind Sen. Greg Hembree as he discusses a massive education overhaul bill that received final approval, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. The senators said there is still more to do for education. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Several South Carolina state senators stand behind Sen. Greg Hembree as he discusses a massive education overhaul bill that received final approval, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. The senators said there is still more to do for education. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After a year of public meetings, discussions and floor debate, the Senate gave final approval Thursday to a massive education overhaul bill.

But almost everyone agrees that’s not the end of education debate in South Carolina, both in the short term as the Senate and House, which passed its own bill last March, need to hammer out their differences, and in the long term as debates over spending public money on private schools, the formula the state uses the fund local school districts and other issues are expected to bubble up.

“We’ve got to keep the pressure on. We can’t let leadership in this state let up,” said Democratic Sen. Vince Sheheen of Camden. “I don’t want us to move back more in education.”

The Senate gave third and final reading to the 80-plus page education overhaul bill after eight weeks of debate.

“This is just one additional step,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, a Republican from Edgefield. “There is so much more to do.”

The key vote Wednesday released a log jam of legislation backed up after eight weeks. Senators then passed more than 20 other bills on issues from banning the shackling of pregnant prisoners to defining motorcycles for tax purposes to designating each July 16 “Atomic Veterans Day” in the state.

The Senate bill has a number of items different from the House version. The Senate bill eliminates the state Education Oversight Committee, an independent agency of educators, lawmakers and business people that handles testing and school report cards. A number of teachers have called for its demise.

It expands scholarships so more people can go to technical college for free. It gives more state lottery scholarship money to qualified education majors and gives the state more power to take over school districts and even fire school boards if their schools are performing poorly.

Both bills reach into schools of every type and grade level, from pre-kindergarten to technical schools. They both cover administrative issues ranging from standardized testing to how schools are run.

The House Education Committee will take up the Senate bill directly, probably around the end of the month, said Rep. Rita Allison, the committee’s chairwoman.

Th committee will meet several times, first find out the differences in the bills and later to allow the public to comment on the Senate bill, said Allison, a Republican from Spartanburg County.

It is the first chance they have had to directly speak about the proposal this year.

Allison thinks the House will change the Senate bill and the matter will go to a conference committee to hash out the differences, but that committee can get to the bill before the General Assembly adjourns May 14.

Hours before the Senate gave final approval to the overhaul bill Thursday, a subcommittee approved a bill that would allow low-income parents to take the public school funding money allocated to their children and spend it on private schools or programs under what supporters call an education savings account.

Supporters said the bill and other ideas like expanded public school choice will help parents who want to get the best education possible for their children but can’t get past the geography of living in a poor school district.

Opponents said private schools and programs can choose who they want unlike public schools, which are required to educate all students. They warn of huge fights if the bill advances further.

“It would just send the wrong message if we passed legislation this year to take public tax dollars and send those to private schools with no accountability,” Sheheen said.

Other long term projects include overhauling the funding formula South Carolina uses to pay for schools that has not been substantially changed since 1977.

Lawmakers can’t run local schools, but “what we do is send them a whole lot of money,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree of Horry County.

Hovering over all of it are teacher groups. SC for Ed, a grassroots group that brought 10,000 people to the Statehosue for a school day rally, doesn’t think this bill does much for teachers. They have said if they aren’t happy with the progress legislators make in education by mid-March, they will return for another school day rally in 2020.

Sen. Brad Hutto said teachers need to take a look at the bill and see they did get some items like bonuses for national board certification and mandated break time away from students. He said the budget the Senate will take up this spring will likely include another raise for teachers and other benefits.

“Stay engaged. We value their voices,” the Democrat from Orangeburg said.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP