- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman says the state should bridge the $600 million gap in K-12 education spending within the next five years.

Lawmakers have not fully funded the so-called “base student cost” since 2008, when the Great Recession forced deep cuts across state government. According to state economic advisers, increasing it to the $2,801 per student that state law calls for in 2015-16 for would cost $599 million.

Spearman’s budget request for next year seeks an additional $94 million to distribute through that main funding source for public schools, which would increase that per-student spending by $100 to $2,220. That’s $20 more per student than Gov. Nikki Haley proposed in her budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Spearman says it’s impractical to try to close the gap in a single year. But she’s encouraging a phased-in approach.

The newly elected Republican says that would go far toward addressing the state Supreme Court’s ruling last fall that South Carolina’s complicated, piecemeal education funding system denies opportunities to poor, rural students. The justices ordered lawmakers and district officials to collectively fix the system but gave no direction.

Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said Wednesday he agrees the “base student cost” needs to be raised. He generally supports Spearman’s effort toward full funding, applauding it as a reasonable approach.

“But I don’t want to give people false hope,” Bingham, chairman of the House panel writing the K-12 budget, said.

Funding will depend on the state’s revenues, he said, calling it unrealistic to expect yearly increases based on a 38-year-old law.

The “base student cost,” which primarily funds salaries, is adjusted annually for inflation using formulas set by the 1977 Education Finance Act. Another main funding source for schools dates to 1984, when the Legislature added a penny to the state sales tax and devoted it to education programs.

Spearman, former director of the state Association of School Administrators, said increasing the base student cost is the best way to help districts, giving them more flexibility in how they spend that money.

“Superintendents and folks out in the field are telling me, ‘Just help us with the base student cost. We don’t need a lot of new programs. We don’t need a lot of new funding for this or that, but if can just do as much as you can on base student cost, that’s really what we need,’” she said.

Other parts of Spearman’s budget request match Haley’s. That includes an additional $10 million for reading coaches and $3 million for summer reading camps, bringing total spending on those initiatives to $40 million and $9 million respectively. Those programs are part of legislation passed last year aimed at ensuring students can read adequately by third grade.

The reading abilities of students in last summer’s reading camps grew, on average, four months’ worth in just four weeks, according to test results collected by the Education Oversight Committee.

“If you do it well, the summer reading camps can really turn around some kids,” EOC director Melanie Barton told Bingham’s subcommittee.

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