COLUMBIA (AP) — South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas shared his plan Thursday for improving the state's schools, a massive, thorough bill that came after dozens of conversations with the governor, lawmakers, business leaders and educators.
The proposal includes a wide range of ideas anchored to a student bill of rights that includes promises of safety, financial stability for schools, teachers who are highly qualified and school choice.
The proposal also includes a 10 percent raise for teachers over two years, required consolidation of small and poorly performing school districts, free college tuition for the children of teachers in the worst-performing schools and the creation of a committee to ensure education goals in the state are unified from pre-kindergarten through college and align with what business leaders want.
It also promised to fix the state's 2014 Read to Succeed program, which was designed to ensure students did not advance past the third grade if they couldn't read. Instead, the program has seen reading test scores in the state drop because the law was full of exemptions that have frustrated teachers.
Lucas' bill received wide praise from fellow Republican and Democratic lawmakers, from the private sector and from education officials. "I didn't have to seek them out. They came to me," the Hartsville Republican said with a smile.
But everyone also said they needed time to digest the 26,200-word proposal — just a few hundred words shorter than Ernest Hemingway's classic "The Old Man and the Sea."
In an interview Thursday, Lucas said this proposal in no way is a final offer and he was setting "a template for others to come behind and make a better bill."
Like a bill increasing road funding that final passed in 2017 after years of debate, the spur to action has been the business community. Lucas said the poor state of South Carolina's education system is leaving jobs unfilled that require increasing mental dexterity and knowledge of advanced mathematics that many schools in the state can't provide.
Lucas plans to have several public hearings and other ways to get input from anyone concerned. He understands it is likely implausible to solve everything in a year. The speaker's proposal doesn't touch the formula for school funding, a confusing set of laws and instructions passed over four-decades.
Lucas joined Senate President Harvey Peeler and Gov. Henry McMaster in asking state economists to review the formula and issue a report in the spring.
"We don't have time to kick this can down the road," Lucas said. "Because we know whatever we do it is going to take years to see the results."
Lucas spent an hour before Thursday's House session telling House Democrats about the bill and answering their questions, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.
Even when disagreements inevitably come up as the details of reform are hashed out, that kind of outreach has been important, Rutherford said.
"This is a giant step in the right direction. Democrats have been urging these kinds of ideas for 20 years," the Columbia Democrat said.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree filed the same bill in his chamber Thursday. Unlike the roads debate, which the House did most of the work and the Senate came along for the ride, the Republican from Little River thinks education reform will end up being the best of what both the House and Senate can come up with, aided by Gov. McMaster's promise to put the full weight of his office behind the changes.
"You are going to hear more 'kumbaya' than a summer youth camp," Hembree said.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. Read his work at https://apnews.com/search/jeffrey%20collins
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