It’d be easy to overlook the significance of S.1121, which S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster signed without fanfare on Monday.
It was a tiny little bill that directly affected only one county, one that was essentially introduced and passed in four legislative days, with no debate or opposition. And it did what everybody had agreed to do last year: Merge Hampton County’s two tiny school districts into one slightly less tiny one.
But 2020 was supposed to be the year that the Legislature made extraordinary progress toward delivering on our state’s most important job: providing a decent education to all children in South Carolina, regardless of where they live. We would pay teachers more and give them better working conditions and treat them like professionals, which is a good thing to do but becomes a vital thing to do when there’s a national teacher shortage. We would make it easier for the state to intervene when local education officials fail the students and teachers in their districts. We would get serious about providing the early childhood education that can make all the difference in a child’s life. We would implement a new funding formula that would spend more state funds to educate the kids who need the most help.
Instead, COVID-19 locked the classroom doors, consigned children to remote learning that isn’t a good option for anyone but is even worse for kids who don’t have reliable internet connections, or computers, or parents with the time, expertise or confidence to become education coordinators or teachers, and, with legislators unwilling to continue anything more than the most urgent (and easiest) work, killed all the education reform efforts.
The one exception was the continuing work to chip away at consolidating the struggling school-size districts that are too tiny to attract the best talent or offer high-level courses or produce the economies of scale that allow them to afford anything more than the basics — and sometimes not even that. That makes the Hampton County bill, along with S.975, which passed just as easily and quietly in January to merge two of Clarendon County’s three tiny districts, worth celebrating.
Consolidating districts was never a big money saver, and certainly not the magical solution to our education woes. But the benefits are so obvious that it was the one specific suggestion the state Supreme Court made when it ordered the Legislature to provide a decent education to all children in our state. Even the dissenters in Abbeville v. South Carolina agreed that tiny districts couldn’t keep complaining about being underfunded when they were squandering their funding to maintain their own superintendent and human resources director and facilities manager and legal shop and other top-paying positions.
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The basics for the latest merger already had been agreed to last year. But there’s a huge difference between school districts agreeing to merge and the Legislature actually approving that merger. Case in point: The Legislature effectively ended the 2020 session without merging Barnwell County’s two tiniest districts, even though Barnwell 19 and Barnwell 29 agreed to merge a year ago — and accepted the funding that the Legislature used to entice districts to consolidate.
The battle to merge single-school-size districts is the very definition of incrementalism. After a burst of action in the 1950s that slashed the number of South Carolina school districts from more than 1,200 to 108, the process slowed. To a crawl. Over the next quarter century, the number dropped to 91. In the quarter century since, we shed a dozen more districts. And now, come July 1, the Clarendon and Hampton consolidations will reduce the number from 79 to 77. (There are also two charter school districts — which is one too many — and a handful of specialty schools.)
That’s still too many districts in a state with just 46 counties. One per county would be ideal, preferably without anything like the constituent districts we have in Charleston County. Even after the Clarendon and Hampton districts merge, we’ll still have 14 districts with fewer than 2,000 students. Six have fewer than 1,000.
But it’s better to have 14 tiny districts than 16. And better to have 77 total districts than 79. And in this deeply frustrating and disappointing year, this year when so many of us struggled personally and communally to simply not fall behind, we’ll take any progress we can get.