Public administrators in the State Board of Education and district school boards face an uphill battle. Funding usually comes from federal, state, and local sources. Federal funding in South Carolina averages about 11% with state (46%) and local (44%) funding splitting the rest, according to the appropriations bill ratified by the SC General Assembly in June 2018 (hereinafter, H4950). The consumers, students, and parents rarely have an inside look at how funds are allocated and spent until funds are grossly misused at the school level. Additionally, education funding, which is only 19% of the state’s 2018 budget (H4950), is one of the single largest line item expenses next to the Department of Health and Human Services at 31%. However, education spending is in the same discussion as funding for the Department of Transportation at 10% and the next highest line item, the Department of Corrections at 2%. If the state is already funding education more than most other items in the budget, the issue must be with efficient use of funds.
School level financial transparency is believed to lead to more accountability in this area, as covered by The Atlantic in January 2015. The idea is to promote openness in the management of funds through reporting how, why, and where funds are allocated with indicators of performance to establish returns. Many states are mandating school level transparency and ensuring compliance via online portals where the information is uploaded for public consumption.
The way funding is typically allocated is on a cost per student basis. In theory, a school would get more funding allocated if it has more students. In South Carolina, the cost per student is currently set at $2,425 with a proposed increase to $2,510. However, according to a recent study conducted by Clemson University’s own Holley Ulbrich and Ellen Salesman in 2017, the projected base cost per student is $2,984. That leaves $474 per student to be funded by other sources. In the same study, the researchers recommended updating the formula that the state uses to calculate base cost. Even if consumers know this information, it still does not highlight where the problem is and why exactly there seems to be “poor” schools and “rich” schools. One of the problems was settled in Abbeville County School District v. The State of South Carolina in 2014 (hereinafter ACSD V SC). It was decided in that case that the method of allocating funds without regard to district wealth caused some schools to be even more underfunded because wealthy districts with the same number of students would receive more funding from local taxes than schools in lower economic districts. It became so pervasive that the underfunded schools could not even provide the state constitution’s definition of “minimally adequate education.”
What are the standards of learning that are being used to measure a “good return” and what is a “minimally adequate education”? In ACSD V SC, the court defined it as “the provision of adequate and safe facilities in which students have the opportunity to acquire: The ability to read, write, and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science; A fundamental knowledge of economic, social, and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and Academic and vocational skills.” One real measure of reading ability is the literacy rate among 4th graders. Studies show that if students do not have adequate reading skills by the 4th grade, they will continue falling behind as they are not able to keep pace with classroom instruction. Learning to read and then reading to learn, yet in 2016, two thirds of all 4th graders in South Carolina were unable read at grade level, which was 39th place in the nation in literacy, according to the executive director of Reading Partners, a Charleston-based ngo. The South Carolina Read to Succeed Act was implemented in 2014 to address the falling literacy rate in the state. However, it was seen as a mismanaged band aid that cost $214 million and in 2017 the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed 4th graders in South Carolina ranking 47th in the nation in reading. The bulk of the funds was used to hire reading coaches who trained teachers how to teach reading from the 3rd to 4th grades. The unsuccessful program may have highlighted a key problem that was not addressed by the Read to Succeed Act. By targeting the outcome and trying to improve literacy, legislators ignored the inputs.
The teachers are a funded input, and the investment was not paying off. This could be that, from inception, inputs were not considered with a mind to investment efficiency. Legislators believed that, at $2,425 per student, they were paying for inputs that would end with students acquiring a “minimally adequate education” and when that didn’t happen, they looked toward fixing the output instead of the inputs. In fact, when Gov. Nikki Haley signed the Read to Succeed Act, she said, “If a child cannot read by third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate on time. That changes now because we are now going to say that no child will move forward past the third grade if they can’t read.” All the while, the public sentiment was that South Carolina was doing a bad job in educating students. However, South Carolina teachers are among the worst paid in the nation and maybe some of the worst teachers. One part of transparency reform would be to conduct a skills gap analysis to identify disparities in staff expertise when it comes to teaching, as suggested in the SAF School Management Blog. It could be argued that in South Carolina, a skills gap analysis is not necessary since it is known that in the worst performing districts; almost 30% of teachers failed to achieve full certification in accordance with the State Constitution (ACSD V SC).