South Carolina’s public education funding formula is broken, and lawmakers are trying to figure out how to fix it.
But money in education isn’t everything, testimony before the House Education Reform Committee revealed on Tuesday.
“We spend more on K-12 education than any other line item in our state budget, and yet that spending is not preparing a majority of our students to be ready with the skills that they need for the jobs of the future,” Ellen Weaver—of the policy group, Palmetto Promise—told the committee.
Critics of education funding love to trot out the 2014 Abbeville decision, rendered by the S.C. Supreme Court after eight plaintiff school districts—initially including Abbeville—sued the state for failing to provide the state-mandated minimally adequate education.
A “fractured formula”
The base student cost—the cost of educating an average student—lags more than $500 behind the $2,984 state budget officials say is needed to fund a so-called minimally adequate education in S.C.
The court sided with the plaintiffs, saying, “we hold that South Carolina’s educational funding scheme is a fractured formula denying students in the Plaintiff Districts the constitutionally required opportunity.”
But critics usually stop there.
“It is striking that the parties to the instant litigation have focused narrowly on a struggle between education expenditures and education outcomes while ignoring the overarching dilemmas emanating from the organizational structure of public education,” the opinion also stated.
“The Plaintiff Districts have opted for a course of self-preservation, placing all blame for the blighted state of education in their districts at the feet of the Defendants.”
The writers cited variance in district size as an example of the “overarching dilemmas.” Allendale, one of the plaintiffs, then had roughly 1,250 students and one superintendent. It lagged in performance behind Lexington Five, which had more than 16,000 students and only one superintendent.
When discussing education funding, the line can’t simply be, “more money.” While property tax revenue, which partly funds education, and the base student cost need to be part of the discussion, there’s more to it.
I like to look at per-pupil funding figures by the state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office and compare them with outcomes. Some of the poorest districts are collecting more per-pupil funding than their wealthier peers, while outcomes in many—certainly not all—poor districts are dismal.
Take again the example of Allendale, whose student population is estimated to have receded to 1,124 this year, and Lexington Five. Allendale will collect a projected $17,613 per pupil from local, state and federal sources this fiscal year, which began in July. Allendale, which was performing so poorly that the state’s education chief took over management of the district this year, gets more than most other S.C. districts.
By contrast, Lexington Five, which is expected to have grown to 16,984 students, received $14,292. Average per-pupil funding in S.C. is an estimated $13,214.
Student outcomes not dependent on spending
Economics consultant, Rebecca Gunnlaugsson identified multiple problems before the committee, including unpredictable revenues and an overly complex funding formula that may disguise inefficiencies.
Members were presented with several solutions, including instituting a statewide millage rate and repealing some or all of the residential property tax exemption from school operating expenses under Act 388.
Representatives bristled under the latter suggestion.
Any approach to streamlining education funding has to be taken in the context of understanding where the dollars are currently going and where the inefficiencies are.
So it was important for Gunnlaugsson to point out that “there was so correlation between spending and students.”
In other words, many districts had better outcomes than expected once she accounted for such factors as poverty.
Additionally, the top performing districts were spending approximately $250 less per pupil than all the districts combined.
Growing districts fuel building boom, debt
While many of the dollars allotted by state budget writers are static—districts can’t spend state revenue as they see fit—building booms and debt seem to correlate with student population increases.
Richland Two chief financial officer, Harry Miley said growing districts tend to get hurt the most by the underfunded base student cost.
“Base student cost would address a lot of the funding issues and the short comings that we have at the local level,” he said.
The district, which contains a large poor and homeless population, is growing by more than 300 students annually, fueling the need for more teachers.
It’s difficult to feel too badly for the district, which has leveraged debt to fund its education ventures.
Approximately 80 students across the district’s five high schools were set to take one of six classes offered at the new Richland 2 Institute of Innovation, which was funded through $40 million in bond debt, The (Columbia) State reported in 2016.
That Northeast Columbia facility houses 185 new offices and an approximately 700-seat conference center.
Rep. Bill Whitmire, who chairs the committee, said legislators have considered giving districts more flexibility to decide how to use state appropriations.
But raising the base student cost to nearly $3,000 would cost the state an additional $500 million, said the Walhalla Republican.
The most recent budget increased the base by $75, costing $60 million.