Sean Rayford file photo | Credit: Sean Rayford file

‘Hold us accountable’

A state senator who is passionate about education policy warned that voters would see a host of distractions from key issues in the coming legislative session.

In Saturday remarks during a panel discussion by the S.C. School Boards Association, S.C. Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, warned voters would see a host of distractions from key issues regarding education in the upcoming legislative session.

Describing games of street corner con-artist deception alongside fellow education-focused lawmakers, Fanning said people should have an understanding of what was coming.

“You’re going to see some of the shell games this year,” he said. “You’ve already heard some of it — sex books in Fort Mill libraries, critical race theory — you’ll hear every single thing thrown out the one year South Carolina has more revenue than we’ve ever had in the history of the state — the one year we’ll have more additional revenue than we will ever have in the next 100 years.”

“Don’t buy it,” he said. 

South Carolina currently has a $3 billion budget surplus. About $2 billion of it is one-time funds that could be used for infrastructure projects. Saturday’s panel, moderated by City Paper publisher Andy Brack, sought answers on how much of the surplus would be dedicated to education, and where specifically it would go.

“You’ve been told for years, ‘We would love to fund base student cost, but we just don’t have the — ‘ what?” Fanning asked. “We got the money this year. You need to hold us accountable.”

Fanning said base student cost, the largest single source of state funds for public education according to state thinktank Palmetto Promise Institute, hasn’t been fully funded in 13 years. “We are underfunding base student cost by $500 million,” he said. 

Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, said while he agrees with Fanning that money is important, a base student cost model may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. 

“It can also not be a strawman,” he said. “We have to make sure that we’re making sure that we’re doing the things that we can. Providing the flexibility to districts is the best way to get that done.”

“Send that out in bulk and then let the district decide where that money is best suited,” he said. “One district may need it for technology, one district may need it for teachers, one district may need it for physical buildings.”

Fanning rebutted, saying that infighting over how to spend the money would be “taking the bait” and that there were only two things the state should spend money on regarding education — teacher salaries and base student cost.

“We can’t take our eyes off the ball,” he said. “”If teachers were promised to get to the national leverage [of pay] and we budgeted that, we need to follow through with that.”

Another long conversation surrounded the possibility of steering public education dollars to private schools, a proposal that detractors call vouchers and proponents frame as a scholarship program.

“Until you have put adequate funding into the classroom, into the base student cost, until we get our teachers where they need to be,” said state Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville. “Until the state of South Carolina fully funds education, let’s not talk about taking dollars and sending them somewhere else.” 

The concept of so-called “school choice” has been a hot-button issue for education in South Carolina for years. Gov. Henry McMaster channeled federal emergency funds to private schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even Republican panelists at Saturday’s roundtable said the idea of school choice isn’t a priority.

“For parents who want choice out there, there is choice in public education right now,” said S.C. Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg. “We’ve got schools of innovation that can be put forward. We’ve got charter schools … I don’t care how many bills come forward concerning that — there will always be 90% of our children in true, traditional public education.” 

Other panelists present were state Sens. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, and Rosalyn Henderson-Myers, D-Spartanburg.