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State Continues to Underfund Public Education

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March 15, 2017
By Andy Brack | Contributing Writer

There’s a bunch of money in the proposed House version of the state budget for education, but it’s still not what the law requires.

South Carolina has a funding formula that mandates spending for 2017-18 of a “base student cost” of $2,984 per student.  House budget writers, as has been common practice in the legislature since 2010, have reduced the mandated cost to $2,400 per student by “determining” in a budget provision that they want base spending to be lower.  In other words, they get around the law by simply rewriting the mandate year after year.

In 2017-18, it means the 721,401 students in K-12 schools will get $421.3 million less than what they are supposed to get by law.  If this amount remains in the budget after the Senate is done with it, South Carolina schools would have been underfunded by a whopping $4.4 billion since 2010, according to a Statehouse Report analysis.

While public schools will get less than the law calls for, they will still get $1.73 billion from general fund revenues at currently proposed levels through formula funding.  That’s $50 per student higher than the previous year and $30 million more overall.  In addition, schools will get another $750 million to pay for employee fringe benefits, such as retirement and health care.  Combined, this is about $2.5 billion of the state’s $8 billion in tax money that goes to public schools.

We can, however, do better.  And we must if we are going to break the cycle of poverty that grips many non-urban parts of South Carolina.

The new budget takes a step toward that by also allocating $100 million for capital improvement projects for high-poverty, rural districts that complained in a lawsuit 20 years ago that their areas weren’t equitably funded.  While the legislature, still under order of the state Supreme Court, continues to grapple with how to deal comprehensively with generations of different treatment for schools in poorer areas, it’s encouraging that they’re taking a baby step toward fixing some facility problems.

Next week, House lawmakers will spend a week talking about how it allocates state tax dollars.  That means that in recent days, they’ve been busy with an assortment of other bills to try to clear their plates before the budget.  It has resulted in lots of comment-worthy news:
Guns. A House subcommittee has approved a bill that would allow anyone who is constitutionally allowed to carry a gun to carry it without a permit.  In a state where there are too many gun deaths, this is exactly what we need – more guns on the street.  (Sarcasm intended.)  Meanwhile, a common-sense bill has been introduced to close a loophole to lengthen the time for gun background checks.  This one should move forward.
Gas tax.  Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been pretty silent since he took over the top job, said he doesn’t believe the answer to the state’s crumbing roads is to raise South Carolina’s gas tax, fourth-lowest in the nation.  The House and a Senate panel have passed increases at 10 cents per gallon and two cents more, respectively.  Fortunately, McMaster has not threatened to veto the proposal. Here’s one where everybody needs to bite the bullet to fix a problem of the legislature’s own making.
• Mopeds.  The legislature is moving forward – and for good reason – to add licensing requirements for moped drivers in an effort, we hope, to cut down use of mopeds by intoxicated drivers as “liquor-cycles.” More rules are needed for these slow vehicles that often cause safety problems on busy roads.
REAL ID.  Despite a plea by McMaster for an exemption to a federal identification law, the House passed a bill to upgrade state identification cards so they comply.  If this doesn’t get through the Senate, it could hurt S.C. travelers next year who don’t have passports.
Plastic bags.  House lawmakers wisely failed to ban municipal efforts to get rid of plastic bags from waste streams.  This issue isn’t dead, but the delay is good for supporters of home rule.

With the General Assembly in session a month less this year, look for a faster pace among the hundreds of bills introduced since December.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@statehousereport.com.

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