The South Carolina House on Thursday passed a bill that would permit the state superintendent to remove local school boards in chronically low-performing districts and take control of those districts indefinitely in an effort to turn them around.
The bill, which expands and formalizes the existing process by which the state schools chief can take over struggling schools or entire districts, passed 78-25.
It requires one more perfunctory vote before being sent back to the Senate, which overwhelmingly approved a slightly different version of the bill in February.
The Senate will have the option to concur with the House’s changes to the bill, amend it further or conference with the House to resolve the differences. If the Senate concurs with the House’s amendment, the bill would go to the governor’s desk for his signature.
The legislation, which has been pushed by the South Carolina Department of Education, represents the state’s latest attempt to improve and sustain academic achievement in South Carolina’s lowest performing public schools, which are typically in high poverty areas.
While the state schools chief may currently take over schools or entire districts under South Carolina law — and has done so in Allendale, Florence 4 and Williamsburg over the past four years — she cannot fire school boards and lacks a process for returning districts to local control.
This bill, which contains language from an omnibus education bill that stalled last year, would grant the state superintendent greater control over the controversial district takeover process by allowing her to dissolve local boards, which state education officials said often try to interfere with the state’s transformation efforts, and ensure the same leaders don’t immediately return to power after the state cedes authority back to local control.
The legislation would allow the state superintendent, with the state Board of Education’s consent, to declare that a state-of-education emergency exists in schools or entire districts that fail to hit certain benchmarks.
The emergency designation would trigger the dissolution of the local school board and initiate a state-led transformation process that would last a minimum of six years, but could drag on longer with the state board’s consent.
Once a state-controlled district hits annual improvement targets for a minimum of three consecutive years, leadership of the district transitions to a five-member interim board composed of state-appointed members who live in the district.
The interim board must serve for a minimum of three years before the state Board of Education can vote to end the emergency declaration and begin the process of returning control to locally elected board members.
Supporters of the bill say the state is obligated to intervene and try its best to turn around districts that repeatedly fail students because all South Carolinians should be guaranteed a quality education.
“It’s our responsibility to speak up for the 780,000 kids that are in our schools,” Education spokesman Ryan Brown said earlier this month. “We have an obligation to do that.”
Opponents, on the other hand, argue it’s unfair to remove democratically elected officials over their districts’ performance while ignoring the systemic problems that have contributed to its struggles.
“We have not provided all of the school districts in our state with the same level of resources, programs, teachers, tax bases. It’s just not what we do. It’s not what we have done,” Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, said Thursday. “We can continue to fool ourselves and keep saying to the school districts and to the school boards, this is your problem, you did it, we don’t like you, you’re incompetent, we’re going to remove you. Or we can honestly look at what we have done in this body to contribute to where we are now. It is highly unfair to hold a person accountable and responsible when they had no ability to change their circumstance.”
How the Senate and House versions of the bill differ
The differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill are minimal, and deal with the conditions that qualify a school or district for state takeover and the composition of its interim board.
Both bills allow the state superintendent to take over schools or districts deemed to be “chronically underperforming,” as well as those that lose accreditation, fail to submit suitable turnaround plans after being identified as underperforming or are embroiled in financial crises.
Following the adoption of an amendment to the House bill Thursday, both bills now link underperformance to the annual school report card. An overall rating of unsatisfactory or below average on the annual school report card qualifies a school as underperforming.
Because annual report cards have not always been issued, the House bill specifies that in years when the state does not issue report cards, the same metrics used to create the report card should be used to assess districts.
“Chronic underperformance,” which is grounds for state takeover, is defined as an unsatisfactory rating on the annual school report card for three straight years and, in the House’s case, five of the last seven years.
Both bills specify that the state superintendent, the local legislative delegation and the governor would appoint interim board members, but they differ in how many seats each entity would select.
The House would have the state superintendent appoint three of the five seats, with the local legislative delegation and governor each appointing one. The Senate wants the local legislative delegation to appoint three seats and the state superintendent and governor to choose one each.