Economic lessons, challenging times for state education says Rex

Challenges, both long-term and immediate, fiscal and physical are facing South Carolina's public education system, according to the state's top education administrator.

Jim Rex, the state superintendent of education, gave an overview of the conditions in public education as he spoke March 23 to the Rotary Club of Barnwell County at Winton Inn in Barnwell.

Rex and his wife, Sue Smith-Rex, were there as guests of Rotarian Tim Moore, a Barnwell attorney. Moore is also the vice chairman of the state board of education, which is the governing and policy-making body for public education.

Other guests at the meeting were the superintendents from all three school districts in Barnwell County, other school principals and S.C. Rep. Lonnie Hosey.

"It's been a tough and demanding year. The major issue we have experienced is a $385 million cut in education so far this year," Rex said. "One thing for sure, South Carolina is suffering - South Carolina is No. 2 in unemployment."

The current economic downturns affecting the state are more immediate than past economic busts. Past trends usually had the state feeling the effects of bad economies later than the rest of the nation - but not this time, Rex said.

Despite the downturns, South Carolina has an obligation to its 700,000 schoolchildren, especially since the state has a high retention rate for its citizens, he said.

"I think as bad as things get, these 700,000 kids only have one childhood," Rex said. "What we do in educating children is invested for 40 to 50 years."

There are several short-term measures that would help the state education department weather the current economic crisis better, Rex said.

One measure is if the state gave more flexibility to school districts on how state education money is spent. State education dollars are often highly regimented in how they are used, he said.

The S.C. Senate has already passed such a measure and next week the S.C. House of Representatives will decide on it, Rex said.

"We need it quickly," he said.

Such a measure has local support.

Within the past two months, the Barnwell 45 school board passed a resolution asking for more leeway in using state dollars.

Another measure would involve the flexibility of time.

April 15 has always been the deadline for districts to have returning teachers sign their contracts for the next school year, Rex said.

However, Rex would like to see this date pushed to later in the year because it would make it more convenient for a financially strapped district to furlough teachers if needed, he said.

"Right now, we don't have the flexibility to furlough teachers," he said.

There are longer term reforms that Rex would like to see that would help the state education system beyond just riding out this current economic crisis, he said.

Rex has been pushing for more public school choice so parents would have the option to pick the public school their children attend, whether it's a higher performing school in their district or a charter, magnet or alternative school.

In the marketplace, consumers are given choices usually in the goods and services available and it's a mindset that the public education system should adopt as well, he said.

"I think every school district should be offering choices," he said.

On a bigger scale, Rex said how public education is financed needs revising.

"We need to reform how we fund public education, but you can't talk about that unless you talk about how to reform the state tax system. Understandably, that's a big issue. If we as a state are going to be competitive, what is the fairest and most transparent way to tax?" Rex said.

Rex has been working on a program, "Begin in ‘10," for the past two years on how to phase in new methods of funding the public education system to replace the system that has been in place for 30 years in the state.

"Begin in ‘10" would start the reformation in 2010.

"We didn't want this can being kicked down the road anymore," he said of delaying the state education funding issue.

Components of "Begin in ‘10" include creating a statewide uniform foundation millage rate, more financial flexibility to districts and creates a commission that revises the state's tax structure.

During a question-and-answer period, Rex was asked about district consolidation, an issue that has come up often in Barnwell County, which has two of the state's smallest districts out of the 85 school districts in the state.

"I think we have too many districts, but I don't know if one (district) per county is good," he said. "What the magic number is - I don't know. You can have districts that are too big."

Rex didn't think a district with high parental involvement should undergo consolidation because it might upset that dynamic, he said.

Partial consolidation of districts might be an option where two or more districts combine or share mutual, common services - like food service - to save on costs, he said.