Haley says SC school funding should be simpler

IRMO, S.C. (AP) — Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley said Thursday that South Carolina's long fragmented funding system for public schools must be simplified to give every student a quality education.

The three-term state House member also called on the state to spend more on students living in poverty, vowing she would put ideas talked about for years by lawmakers back at the center of debate if elected governor.

"Nikki Haley as governor cares about equities in education across this state," she said while campaigning outside an Irmo high school. "If we take care of education in South Carolina, we take care of the economy, we take care of jobs. It is the core of everything."

It was Haley's second set of proposals in as many weeks. Last week, she released an economic plan that also featured ideas legislators have rejected, such as eliminating the corporate income tax, the state's third-largest source of revenue.

She would not talk about her support of helping parents send their children to private schools, an idea she's previously advocated, other than to say she'd sign a private school choice bill if it reached her desk as governor.

Democratic nominee Vincent Sheheen criticized her on that issue Wednesday, when he too called for comprehensive tax reform so that all children get the same education opportunities. He vowed to veto any private school choice bill and said it's time for the state to support public education, saying lawmakers have wasted years bashing it. That includes, he said, not laying off any more teachers in budget cuts and undoing testing and paperwork mandates.

Both candidates say education is key to the state's ability to compete for jobs and to increase residents' quality of life, in a state that's struggled with record-high unemployment.

Lawmakers have said for years the state's funding formulas for education, which date to 1977, need overhauled, but they've yet to tackle it.

House Democrats have fought repeatedly for poverty to be a factor in funding. Republicans consistently reject those proposals in a GOP-controlled state where a 17-year-old education equity lawsuit still looms.

Lawmakers, along with educators from the 36 poor, rural school districts that sued are awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court. The state's argument has been that all children already have the opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education.

Haley says the debate would be different if she's governor. She also championed performance pay for educators who teach in high-poverty areas and whose students show improvement.

Haley said the focus must be on simplifying education finance.

State money flows to public schools in chunks, starting with the 33-year-old formula for paying teacher wages and benefits. Other monies come from a 1-cent state sales tax increase approved in 1984, lottery money, federal money, local property taxes, and the state's reimbursement to districts for cutting some property taxes.

"We have an archaic funding formula that doesn't work," Haley said.

She also said there are too many mandates on how districts must spend the money.

Though she initially faulted the state Education Department, she also said she would tell lawmakers the agency is too complicated, adding too much money is spent on bureaucracy rather than on the classrooms.

There's "too much in management and bureaucracy at the top and not down to the school districts where we're giving more power to the principals the teachers and students in the classroom," she said.

Roughly 95 percent of all state and federal money already goes directly to districts. Of the money that goes to the agency, 30 percent pays for school buses, 20 percent pays for textbooks, and 13 percent pays for state and federally required standardized testing, according to budget figures.

Haley said the problem is district-level bureaucracy. While she's previously supported school district consolidation as a way to redirect money to classrooms, she said Thursday she wasn't talking about that.

Other ways to save money, she said, are to privatize school buses and have districts pick from a set of pre-designed architectural plans for new schools.

South Carolina is the only state to own and maintain a statewide school bus fleet. Roughly half of the agency's 885 workers are bus mechanics across the state. Gov. Mark Sanford has previously pushed to privatize that operation. The two districts that do contract out for bus services pay more for bus service, not less.

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