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SC Looks At Tweaking Definition Of Needy Schools To Preserve Loan Forgiveness Program

South Carolina has long had a college loan forgiveness program to attract aspiring teachers to needy schools.  But most public schools in the state are now on that list.  Some state education officials want to tweak it and make sure the program is really directing teachers to the neediest schools. 

Say you’re a new graduate looking for a teaching job.  It might take a nudge to go to Chester County.  It’s a rural district smack dab between Charlotte and Columbia.  Wendell Sumter says as a principal at Chester Middle a few years ago, the program came in handy when trying to compete with those cities for teachers.   

“As a small district, where we have salaries with other districts that are much higher than what we’re able to pay in Chester County, it offers a different edge to us,” says Sumter. 

Chester Middle qualifies for the program because more than 70 percent of its students are from low-income families.  But that’s also true of hundreds of other schools in the state. 

“Let me give you the sobering statistics in South Carolina.  Approximately now two thirds of our schools have a poverty index of 70 percent or more,” says Melanie Barton, the executive director of the Education Oversight Committee, a state agency.

In 2008, 629 schools qualified for the program because of their poverty levels.  That number has grown to 780 schools this year. 

“Of course, you’ve had the great recession.  That’s been one of the driving forces,” says Barton.  

The Education Oversight Committee wants state lawmakers to narrow the definition of a needy school.  Instead of setting a poverty threshold of 70 percent, the committee recommends raising it to 80 percent.  Barton says that would include just under half of South Carolina schools. State Superintendent Mick Zais goes along with that. 

“The definition is so loose that over 70 percent of schools in South Carolina qualify as critical.  If I was going to pick out the schools that I would like to direct teachers to for loan forgiveness they wouldn’t necessarily include all 70 plus percent of the schools in SC,” says Zais.

There are other factors that put schools on the loan forgiveness list: a below average rating and a teacher turnover rate of more than 20 percent.  But only 5 percent of schools land on the list for these reasons alone. 

The Education Oversight Committee is also asking state lawmakers to set aside $2 million more for these loans.  The loan program now provides $4.6 million in support to about 1,100 aspiring teachers. 

The state board of education still has to weigh in with its recommendation.  If lawmakers agree with the changes, they wouldn’t take effect until the 2014-2015 school year.