The Fight Over Control of American Education

Earlier this year, US News reported their findings for the 2017 State rankings in categories of Health Care, Education, Crime and Corrections, Infrastructure, Opportunity, Economy, and Government. South Carolina fell at number 45 on overall ranking and 50th in education. South Carolina, my birthplace, home, and state that I love; is now the worst state in education across the nation. No words can describe how frustrated and hurt I am, that our state and local government and representatives continue to belittle society and not produce pragmatic solutions. Instead, they shorten their legislative session and lie to the good people of South Carolina.

In the Spring 2016, I wrote an paper for my Education Policy class about the an issue that plagues the nation when dealing with education. Although education policy has many layers, this is the first of a series of posts that discuss the problems and the pragmatic solutions that should be taken in order to provide each and every student, regardless of whether they live in SC or not, with a maximum and sufficient education. I would like to apologize in advanced for the length of this post.

The Fight Over Control of Education Policy

Charleston County School District and Adequate Yearly Progress

The issue of jurisdiction within the realm of educational policy and control of the curriculum has been seen recently by the public as a tangled web. President George W. Bush’s policy of No Child Left Behind, a re-authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, made it almost impossible for schools and states to succeed in education requirements through the policy’s program of ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’. Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP for short, is a program where the U.S. Department of Education tracks and grades districts in order to observe which schools are doing the best and the worst. The program is mainly linked to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and states that schools, where 35 percent of their students are from low income families, will be given money by the federal government. If these schools fail to meet AYP requirements than state education agencies are required to determine what the goals of the schools are, forcing local districts to surrender jurisdiction. However the policy’s requirement to pass is 100 percent of students must be proficient according to the state standards.

Adequate Yearly Progress comes with serious consequences when schools fail to meet the necessary requirements. According to the No Child Left Behind policy, enacted in 2002, if a school fails to meet the requirements after two years, than the school must provide the option of transferring students to a better school. After three years of failing, the school must also provide services to enhance education; i.e. tutoring. Corrective action is the next step on the ladder for schools failing to meet NCLB’s policy requirements. Corrective action is when the district is required to implement a change within a school; an example would be replacing school staff, having a new curriculum, or opening the school as a public charter school. The fifth and sixth years of failing, the federal government requires the district to plan on restructuring the school. Restructuring is open to many possibilities of new governance, new staff, and a state government taking over the operations.

Charleston County School District, which consists of 80 schools and roughly 47,000 students, received a B rating by the U. S. Department of Education in the 2014 academic year. Charleston County however is unlike any other school district in the nation due to a bi-furcated governing structure. This two tier governance is split by the main governing body and constituent bodies. The main body, located at 75 Calhoun Street in Downtown Charleston, controls funding and other policy matters across the district. The constituent districts are responsible for everyday operations such as: hiring and firing of administration and faculty, and how policies are enforced. Due to this system of governance Charleston County’s 80 schools are diverse when looking at school ratings provided by the U.S. Department of Education. In the same school district, there are schools that succeed based on a growing community around them, and there are schools that fail because the school is not able to obtain enough resources. According to a report in 2010 about 28 percent of the schools within Charleston County School District, failed to meet the academic requirements of Adequate Yearly Progress. Of those schools that failed were Baptist Hill High School located in Hollywood, Burke High School in Downtown Charleston, and Wando High School located in Mt. Pleasant. Baptist Hill received in 2010 a rating of 92.3 percent of proficiency among its students. Burke failed with 53.8 percent and Wando failed with 71.4 percent. However in the years following, the South Carolina Department of Education has publicized the 2014-2015 academic year statistics which states that Wando has gained almost 20 percent of student proficiency, however their rating of 90.9 percent still fails to meet the requirement of Adequate Yearly Progress. Burke High School has failed even further to a 45.8 percent, while Baptist Hill High School has decreased to 62.3 percent. The Charleston County rating is now at 84.9 percent and exceeds the state’s expectations however does not meet the requirement of the federal policy.

Adequate Yearly Progress is a program in which the No Child Left Behind of 2002, a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965, wants schools and students to be proficient and stable however the policy requires too much of schools and districts without realistically looking at how schools and districts teach. Adequate Yearly Progress can be a useful tool for the United States Department of Education and can be used as an effective way to create a better education in American society. The issue with AYP is the way the federal government fails to actually better districts through constructive means, but instead uses power to force districts, which may not be in terrible condition, to restructure and try to improve. American society is so focused on better education through charter schools and private schools, that it fails to notice the crumbling public school system. If America would observe the schools based on an “A” to “F” grading scale and notice that some schools are doing good but can improve by pragmatic solutions, than students from Burke, Baptist Hill, and Wando High Schools would all be obtaining equitable educations.

SC Supreme Court Case: Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina (2014)

In November of 2014 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a case which dates back 21 years. Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina was first filled in 1993 when a group of 36 school districts, only eight acted as plaintiffs in trial, came together for what they believed as a failure by the General Assembly of South Carolina in the execution of Article XI §9 of the South Carolina Constitution which states:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the State and shall establish, organize and support such other public institutions of learning, as may be desirable.”

The legal question involved is believed to be what a “minimally adequate education” is and is the General Assembly of South Carolina providing students with that minimal education?

The case of Abbeville School District started when over 30 school districts charged the General Assembly of South Carolina with violations to the education finance system. The violation includes the South Carolina Constitution, the federal constitution, as well as the funding statute. In what is called Abbeville I the court held that the General Assembly is required to provide a “minimally adequate education.” An adequate education is defined according to the 1993 court, by three skills: (1) to read and write in English while also having a knowledge of mathematics and physical science; (2) knowledge of economic, social and political systems; and (3) academic and vocational skills. In December of 2005 the lower court ruled that the state failed its responsibility and “ordered the state to provide preschool and other interventions ‘through at least grade three…’” The court also ruled against the school districts and found claims of inadequate teaching and facilities.

The court ruling in November 2014 was due to the actions of the General Assembly, where the state legislature would not fix nor create a new equitable funding program in order to better public education in rural and predominately African-American towns across the state. In a 3-2 ruling in 2014 the court ordered the legislature of South Carolina to devise a plan by February of 2015 or be subjected to a fine of $100,000. However the opinions of the court’s rulings have been with criticism due to ‘the doctrine of separation of powers.’ These two opposing opinions have always been in question, even in today’s United States Supreme Court and deciding whether the role of the court is judicial restraint, which suggests that a judge is unbiased and interprets the text and/or original meaning; or judicial activism, where judges taken on more of a ‘political’ agenda.

Abbeville School District v. South Carolina (2014) will act as a platform in order to change the educational system within South Carolina and the rest of the nation. There are still many more questions to be asked, but the state and school boards must work together, while legislators must be passionate enough to compromise. Only then can we bring about true advancement in children.

The “War” between the State Legislature and State Supreme Court

Since the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in its historic Abbeville case, there is a “war” between the highest state court and the state legislature over control of public education. After the November 2014 ruling, the South Carolina Legislature has been continually working on education reform however not as fast as the SC Supreme Court would like and also not without refusal against the court mandate. The Supreme Court’s order from November 2014 states that the legislature must work in “a reasonable amount of time” to provide a summary of the state government’s position, goals, and efforts to progress K-12 education in areas which are rural and/or poor. Due to failure to meet the deadlines set by the SC Supreme Court, the General Assembly has asked the court to extend the deadline twice; leaving the legislature a cumulative total of almost 19 months to create an education reform policy.

In September 2015, 10 months after the Abbeville ruling, state leaders stated that they would defy the Supreme Court’s deadline of February 1, 2016. In an open letter to the South Carolina Supreme Court, written by South Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman and South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas, the leaders of the General Assembly state that the court’s decision on the deadline disregards “one of the most fundamental constitutional principles upon which our government is based.” This principle, in which the state leaders mention, is the notion of separation of powers. It is argued that the court overstepped their bounds because it is not the role of the court to be involved in the “legislative-making process” which would legitimize judicial activism instead of judicial restraint. The Court responded to the letter stating the South Carolina Constitution states that the legislature must provide a “minimally adequate education” and it is the court’s role to interpret the text of the State Constitution.

Most recently the South Carolina Supreme Court has waived the February 1, 2016 deadline due to pressure by Governor Nikki Haley and state leaders. In doing so, the court ordered a new deadline of one week after the legislative session of 2016; giving SC politicians, in both the House of Representatives and Senate, until the ninth of June to provide a summary in detailing the state’s efforts to advance K-12 education in areas that are rural and underprivileged. Due to a similar case in Washington, there remains an open threat by the South Carolina Supreme Court, in which the court will fine the South Carolina legislature $100,000 per day in which no summary is provided.

State Legislature’s Response since S.C. Court’s Mandate

The South Carolina legislature’s February 1, 2016 deadline has been extended until mid-June of 2016 to provide an “adequate education” for students. However the legislature has not been productive in their six month session to quickly reform the public education system in order to provide the ‘adequate education’ to South Carolina students. In the Abbeville v. South Carolina (2014) ruling the S.C. Supreme Court’s opinion listed the definition of an ‘adequate education’ as “1. the ability to read, write, and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science; 2. A fundamental knowledge of economic, social, and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and 3. Academic and vocational skills.” In September of 2015, state leaders expressed disapproval of the state Supreme Court’s mandate and were quoted as saying the legislature would defy the order. However months have passed since the first deadline and the state legislature has still failed to introduce any bills relating to curriculum reform. Instead the bills are primarily for other the everyday operations of schools and districts, non-related to curriculum.

According to the South Carolina Constitution Article XI § 3, the General Assembly of the state is supposed to provide for “the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children…and shall establish, organize and support such…public institutions of learning…” In Abbeville v. South Carolina (1999) the state Supreme Court defined section three as the General Assembly’s responsibility to provide ‘a minimally adequate education’. The South Carolina legislature has created a task force named, “Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force,” which lists ‘findings’ or goals that the General Assembly ought to reach, such as: “further…effective leadership…that leads to collaboration with the State Department of Education (SDE), institutions of higher education, and other appropriate entities.” Goal one also suggests that the legislature should create a “pipeline” between the teachers, principals, and superintendents. The second ‘finding,’ or goal, suggests that bills ought to be passed that help students reach reading levels “by the end of third grade” In ninth grade, students ought to have graduation plans that focus on career clusters; and high school graduates be ready for college and careers. Next the task force suggests that the General Assembly review current laws and revise outdated codes. This suggestion also states that the legislature “should establish the educational goals and work with the State Department of Education to give a “rigorous and transparent accountability system.””

The report by the task force was released in December of 2015, however it is now 2016 and although legislation has been introduced to meet these goals, it seems that the legislature has not been truly productive in fixing the the South Carolina public education system before the mid-June deadline. None of the “twelve findings” deal directly with curriculum reform however goal two does affect students when dealing with reading, graduating, and entering college and/or the labor force, however there is no explicit suggestion that the curriculum ought to be changed in order to meet ‘finding’ two. The South Carolina legislature has introduced bills to create a better education in public schools, but due to being a part-time legislature and a long legal process, it may not be until 2017 that citizens see some policies passed.

Pragmatic Policy

Under the South Carolina Constitution, the General Assembly is required to provide what is called a “minimally adequate education” however it was not until a 1999 state supreme court opinion was given that defined the phrase. Abbeville v. South Carolina I was a case involving over 30 school districts suing the state legislature on failing to provide sufficient funding for an adequate education. The justice’s opinion defined “minimally adequate education” as students being provided the knowledge and experience of three skills: (1) to read and write in English while also having a knowledge of mathematics and physical science; (2) knowledge of economic, social and political systems; and (3) academic and vocational skills.

Under the current South Carolina high school graduation requirements, a student must earn a passing grade in 24 credits, or classes, in a wide array of subjects. English/language arts and mathematics are both at four credits each, while science classes are three classes; however a student does actually take four ‘science’ classes. Physical science, usually taken in a student’s sophomore year, does not count as a credit towards graduation, even though considered a required class. Other classes include: one class on U.S. History and the Constitution; American government and economics, both of which are considered half a credit and taken during the student’s senior year; another social studies class; one class of gym or JROTC; a class of computer science; a class in foreign language; and seven elective classes. The question then remains whether this curriculum meets the “minimally adequate education” requirements? Yes, however there is still an underlying question of how effective this curriculum is in reality.

According to the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, education is a matter of state governments. Within 48 states, there exist a state specific authority called the ‘State Board of Education.’ It is the role of the Board to set statewide curriculum standards and create student achievement goals for school districts. Other responsibilities of the board and their relation to achievement goals are defined by: establishing high school graduation requirements; establishing standards for accreditation of local districts; and establishing state accountability and assessment programs. The board then gives the executive power to the Chief State School Officer, or sometimes known as the State Superintendent. The power of the superintendent is to administer state education policies that come from the State Board of Education and/or the state legislature.

The South Carolina legislature, or General Assembly, has multiple responsibilities when dealing with public education. There are two education committees, one in the SC House of Representatives and one in the SC Senate. The education committee in the House of Representatives is also in charge of public works, while the committee in the Senate is independent. It is the General Assembly’s obligation to provide and establish state education policies, while also determining major state resource issues, i.e. funding. In South Carolina, the public education expenditure is the largest in the general fund appropriations, with 28 cents of every dollar going to K-12 education. The power the legislature has over education policy is greatly influential such as: raising teacher salaries statewide; equalizing funding among school districts; set up health and retirement plans for state’s lowest income teachers; borrowing money for school financing by floating school bonds, in order to provide construction; determine teacher’s licensing standards; and set curriculum standards as well as graduation requirements.

The Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force, set up by the SC House education committee has released its findings of what ought to be proposed solutions by the General Assembly. The task force’s twelve findings, or suggestions, are relatively broad and deal primarily with the relationship between local school districts and the state government and/or the costs of transportation and other resources. The task-force’s findings are inadequate when dealing with “adequate education” due to not discussing specific curriculum reforms or student achievement.

In Charleston County, the school district currently released its specific policy designed to raise student achievement in low-performing schools. Their plan, Vision-2016, has four main focus areas. The first is literacy-based education, which provides students of all levels more effective tutoring and professional development. The first area also includes the infusion of technology into teaching and learning methods; and to give the “gifted and talented” students a more rigorous instruction. The next focus area deals with educator effectiveness, or investments into effective and talented professionals. The policy the district is putting in place will rate teachers and principals on their effectiveness and also getting rid of faculty and staff which are deemed ineffective. The policy also states that there will be new leadership training and programs to increase diversity. Focus area three is about “innovative schools and systems” or school choice. Charleston County School District is looking to offer families in each zone a wide array of choices for schools that the family believes is best for that student. Choices may include Montessori and charter schools. Other policies within this area include stabilizing school enrollments through a “new system for school capacity reviews and voluntary transfers;” and increasing career and technical education, alternative education, and English language learner offerings. The final are the district is paying attention to is partnerships with parents, communities, volunteers, businesses, and high education institutions. (My opinion on School Choice will be in another post at a later date.)

With everything that has occurred in the recent years since Abbeville was decided and the facts of how education is being operated in South Carolina, there still remains two questions; one of which is whether there is a basic, fundamental curriculum that addresses the achievement gap? The answer: yes, there is an actual curriculum that will allow for students to achieve; however in the case of the current curriculum, does it work? In theory yes however it fails to meet the level of achievement that American exceptionalism would like to believe. Abbeville did help the state of South Carolina by bringing the idea of equity and fairness to the forefront of education reform, and will serve as a pioneer in education policy; however the curriculum in place does not meet the standards of European countries or even other states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The curriculum that ought to be in place should be one that advances the student’s mind in language, writing and grammar, mathematics, logic and reasoning, science and the arts, and oratory and vocational skills. Each child deserves the best education that a state and/or federal government can provide.

The second question that is left unanswered, is whether federal and/or state policies should trump over local school districts when dealing with curriculum reform. The school districts ought to be the enforcers of how the curriculum should be taught and provide schools with the resources they need to succeed. The state government’s responsibility is to create an adequate education which: (1) competes with other states and (2) competes with other countries. The state must also provide the school districts with the funding possible to succeed, and not punish schools which are falling behind. To give a school like Wando High School more money because they are succeeding, does not make Baptist Hill or Burke High Schools succeed. Funding schools are the only way to provide the resources to succeed in public education and punishing schools does not help students graduate. Thus the attitude towards public education must change and the legislature ought to pass policies that are in sync with pragmatic solutions. As for the federal government, there is an ongoing debate about what the United States government’s responsibilities ought to be in education policy. In my opinion, the federal government does play a role in education policy due to the state and cities being a part of a national economy. The federal government should have a say in how state educational policies ought to be set and should be to: (1) provide schools with federal funding in order to succeed; (2) provide a rating on how the individual state rates among the rest of the nation; and (3) provide advice to states and school districts in how to better education within different communities.

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