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After 8 Weeks Of Debate, SC Senate OKs Huge Education Bill

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The South Carolina Senate chambers, where a bill to overhaul public eduation gained approval Wednesday.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — After eight weeks of debate, the South Carolina Senate on Wednesday gave key approval to a bill to overhaul public education in South Carolina.

The 80-plus page Senate bill has been bouncing around for a year, through a dozen committee meetings and public hearings even before the marathon floor debate.

Senators approved it 41-4. It faces one final vote before it passes to the House.

The House passed its own version of a education bill in March 2019 and has been impatiently waiting for the Senate to finish its work. Once this session ends in May, the bills die.

A year ago, supporters suggested the bill would be a once-in-a-generation chance to change and improve pubic education. Over time, supporters now said the bill is more like tuning an engine then rebuilding it. The bill is the first substantial education package passed since 1998.

“I'm proud of the hard work that went into it, the thoughtful work,” said Republican Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree, who shepherded the bill.

Senators put the bill in a special slot the first day of session which didn't allow any other substantial bills to be debated until it was finished. More than 70 bills have piled up behind it with just 30 regular legislative days left in the session — and that doesn't include an upcoming weeklong debate on the state budget or what could be more weeks discussing whether to sell state-owned utility Santee Cooper.

Senators blame most of the delay on Sen. Mike Fanning, a first term Democrat from Great Falls. Fanning proposed nearly 200 amendments, although he removed a number of them. In all, senators suggested more than 330 changes and went through two unsuccessful votes to limit debate.

Fanning said he was just fighting for teachers who think the bill makes little real reform against a fatally flawed bill he compared to spaghetti thrown on a wall to see what sticks.

“What on earth do you say to you constituents that we are accomplishing in this 84 pages of garbage that stunk when we started and it stinks now,” Fanning said Tuesday as senators voted down his final amendment, No. 289.

The bill does have several major changes. On Tuesday, senators agreed to a change eliminating the state Education Oversight Committee, an independent agency of educators, lawmakers and business people that handles testing and school report cards. A number of teachers have called for its demise.

Other amendments passed include expanding pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds to all poor families across the state, expanding free technical college to poorer students and training for certain occupations. paying for the certification fees of first time teachers, doubling the amount of money given to teachers to buy supplies to $550 annually and giving more state lottery scholarship money to qualified education majors.

Teachers also received a significant raise through the budget in the past year and another raise appears to be on track for this year.

Grassroots teacher group SC for Ed, which organized a rally last May that brought 10,000 people to the Statehouse and closed some districts to call for teacher friendly changes to the law, said on Twitter before the vote that the bill will do nothing to help educators in the classroom. The group has given a mid-March deadline to make changes or they will call on teachers to come to the Statehouse on a weekday in hopes to shut down schools.

“The walkout will continue. You had an opportunity to make meaningful change, and you failed the children of this state. It’s a shameful day in South Carolina,” SC for Ed posted on Twitter.

“Today proved that while politicians will stand with us for a photo op, few will stand by us.,” the group said in a second post.

Hembree said the group doesn't speak for all teachers.

“There’s 50,000 in South Carolina and they all have opinions and thoughts on it. I feel some have been misguided. I feel there has been some bad information," the Republican from Horry County said.

Palmetto State Teachers Assocaition Executive Director Kathy Maness said she is telling her group, “we got some things. Be patient. We hope to see more coming.”

The Senate bill involves schools of every type and grade level, from pre-kindergarten to technical schools. The bill covers administrative issues ranging from standardized testing to how schools are run.

If the Senate passes the bill, the House will likely reject it as is and the two chambers will have to work out substantial differences in the two months remaining in this year's session.

The House is hedging its bets this year by passing changes in smaller chunks — cutting the number of standardized tests, altering an elementary school reading program and making it easier to recruit people without education degrees into the classroom.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP