Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SC's leaders show no courage on education

For several years now, the main debate when it comes to education policy has been the issue of private school tuition tax credits. Money flows on both ways of the debate. Regardless if one supports school “choice” or is opposed to the tax credits, the truth is that regardless of who prevails in the debate, it will not change South Carolina education.

To change South Carolina’s educational system and prepare the people of South Carolina to compete in a global economy, issues that probably seem impossible to address have to be addressed. Giving K-12 students parents a tax credit is no silver bullet. The status quo does not work. We in South Carolina have to face the hard questions and address the difficult political issues.

First, we must address curriculum in K-12 education. We must check political correctness at the door, because in a competitive world, political correctness only weakens our ability to compete. The state must emphasize the basics of mathematics, sciences, the classics of literature and history, and civic responsibility. We need to graduate students who understand why plants need the Sun, how to balance a checking account, what their civic rights and duties are more than being sensitive to a politically correct group. How can we ever hope to compete in a global economy when our graduates do not know basic chemical formulas, or even basic civics? Tolerating a gay couple will not get one a job in the global economy. Being sensitive and full of self esteem will not pay the bills.

Second, we must act to make administrative cuts and make schools more efficient in their financial operations. The administrative overhead in South Carolina schools is an outrage. Instead of buying computers for teachers and students, we spend millions on salaries of administrators at various levels who jobs are basically to talk to one another. There are ideas floating around about reducing the number of school districts in the state and that is a good start.

Also, the state should look at redefining school administration. Let the Principal have control over teachers. Let the Superintendents have control over their principals. However, the business operations, things like janitorial staff, maintenance staff, cafeteria staff and transportation staff should be under the control of a business manager. It is simply inefficient to have people trained to be educators given jobs to act as business people. Simply put, the business operations of schools should not be ran by people trained in education. One would not ask his lawyer to do his heart bypass surgery, so why do we ask educators to handle the business operations of schools? Frankly, I would take a guy who ran a fast food operation efficiently calling the shots in the school cafeteria over a guy with a PHD in education.

Third, we have to realize what we are truly up against. South Carolina has far too many adults who are undereducated and do not appreciate the value of education. That is where the real debate should be. If we have tuition tax credits, reform the curriculums and institute efficiency, it will not matter if parents do not have the skills to understand their choices and foster a culture that teaches their children that success is not an option for them.

The state can act by making adult education more accessible. Make no mistake that is South Carolina’s biggest challenge. Thousands of jobs, and the tax revenues those jobs could have created, have gone elsewhere over the past few years because our adult workforce was not skilled and ready to compete. Because of that thousands of South Carolinians either remain unemployed or take low skill jobs. When those South Carolinians come home at night, they see no better way for their children. The cycle of failure spins around, and no amount of tax cuts and tax credits will stop that cycle.

South Carolina’s political leaders in both political parties have to have some courage. They have to stand up for people that have not made big campaign contributions. They have to stand up against lobbyists who say the status quo is okay. They have to step on the toes of constituencies who would rather play the victim. To truly reform South Carolina’s educational system and move the state forward, South Carolina’s leaders must transform parts of South Carolina from a culture that celebrates failure into a culture that celebrates achievement.

By achievement, I am not talking about the classic ideal of a college education. Frankly, a good electrician is probably more valuable than a guy with a degree in Art History. If South Carolina can shift the areas in the culture of failure to people who are skilled and proud of their trades, and know how to compete, then the problems of low education ratings, low health ratings and high unemployment ratings will be solved.

Governor Sanford and his cohorts think that they have the silver bullet to fix this state with tuition tax credits. The education establishment types think they have the silver bullet to fix this state with more money for the status quo. Both are well paid to be wrong. If there is a silver bullet with education, it is doing the hard things with curriculum and administration, and educating adults to be skilled.

Fixing education is key to making South Carolina competitive in the global economy. The problem South Carolina has is that its leaders seem unwilling to have the courage to do the real work needed.

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