- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s four Democratic candidates for superintendent of education squared off in a televised debate on Thursday, differing over how to increase school funding.

The debate grew heated when former South Carolina Education Association president Sheila Gallagher reiterated her proposal to pay for education by legalizing marijuana.

“I can’t envision having a situation here in South Carolina where we say ‘Buy marijuana so we can have high quality schools,’” said Tom Thompson, dean of graduate studies at South Carolina State University.

Also participating in the ETV debate were state Rep. Jerry Govan of Orangeburg and former director of school transformation Montrio Belton.

While all candidates agree that school districts should be fully and equally funded across the state, they differ on whether the solution lies with a higher sales tax, a return to property tax-tied funding or, as Gallagher suggested, legalizing and taxing marijuana sales and closing tax exemptions.

Belton argued that school funding should be simplified. He said any attempt to retie district funding to an increased property tax would be opposed by every Democratic voter. He also spoke out against increasing sales tax to fund education and said it would be a regressive tax targeting the poor.

Thompson said the formula to fund schools is not difficult to understand and that the real problem behind inequitable school funding is that the “base student cost,” which determines district funding, has never been fully funded. If a property tax is out of the question, he said, the legislature needs to increase the sales tax by 1 or 2 cents.

They also touched on several other subjects:

Common Core:

. In stark contrast to the Republican primary, all four Democratic candidates spoke in favor of the Common Core standards, which seek to set uniform expectations nationwide. They said if Common Core is repealed by the legislature, South Carolina would see it return under a different name.

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Failing schools:

. Belton said the best solution for failing schools is to immediately offer public choice to parents and let the money follow the child. As superintendent, he said he would allow parents to send their children to the public school of their choice and that the state would provide transportation.

. Gallagher, Govan and Thompson emphasized a need for parent, community and business involvement in failing schools.

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