- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Gov. Nikki Haley thanked House leaders Wednesday for a budget plan she says takes a historic step in providing a good education to all South Carolina students.

Haley’s praise came shortly after the House sent its $7 billion spending plan for state taxes to the Senate. Its additional $181 million for K-12 schools expands on an education plan she unveiled in January after a series of meetings last year with teachers, administrators, legislators and business leaders.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” Haley said. “This House said we are no longer going to educate … a student based on where they live. We are now going to start to educate children based on the fact they deserve a good education and that is our future workforce.”

The budget plan gives more to students in poor, rural districts without taking money away from other districts that are able to better equip classrooms through local property taxes. Changes include a first-ever weighting for poverty, which translates to an additional $97 million spent on students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. It would also spend 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn’t English and therefore need one-on-one help.

Democrats have long fought for such weightings.

Rep. Kenny Bingham, whose subcommittee writes the K-12 budget, said the governor pushing for the change made the difference.

“When the governor puts her stamp of approval on it - when she’s inclusive like she was - it makes transformation possible,” said Bingham, R-Cayce. “This was a heavy lift. K-12 is a big winner in this year’s budget.”

Despite the increases, Democrats criticized the plan as still not complying with state law. Fully funding the “base student cost” at $2,742 per student would cost an additional $537 million. That per-student figure is calculated under a formula, established by a 1977 state law, that’s adjusted annually for inflation. The state last complied with it in 2008-09.

If education is really the top priority, legislators should figure out a way to meet that obligation, said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia.

Republicans called that unrealistic. They note the “base student cost” is one of several education funding sources in South Carolina’s complicated, piecemeal system.

“There’s always more we need to do but, boy, what a good step in the right direction this is,” Haley said.

Elements adopted from Haley’s budget proposal include $30 million to hire additional reading coaches in elementary schools and $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools. The state would fully cover the cost of a reading coach for several hundred elementary schools where a substantial number of students score poorly on standardized reading tests. The coaches would be partially funded at others. Technology money would be distributed to districts based on their poverty rating.

Other pieces of the legislative package focus include $7 million for digital classroom materials and $4 million in teacher training. The plan would spend an extra $4.5 million on summer reading camps as part of an effort to bring elementary children’s reading to grade level. South Carolina’s virtual school program, which allows rural students to take classes not offered in their schools, could hire 11 teachers. The plan would boost spending on charter school students, plus put $4 million toward a loan program for those trying to open a charter school.

“I hope the teachers see this as a huge sign of support for them in we want to strengthen everything they’re trying to do to be that connector between parents and the children,” said Haley, a native of rural Bamberg. “But more importantly … I’m excited about the fact I no longer will have to feel guilty that my daughter is getting a great education in River Bluff in Lexington and have to think about the children in Bamberg not getting the same thing.”

Her expected Democratic opponent in November, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, has said he will push this year to boost teachers’ pay and further expand parents’ access to full-day 4-year-old kindergarten.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, disputed calling the House plan historic. Given that it’s still half a billion dollars short and teachers’ pay is abysmally low, he said, “it’s only a historic step for Haley because it’s the first time she’s focused on education and it happens to be when she’s running for re-election.”

The House’s total budget package for the fiscal year starting July 1 is $24 billion, up from $22.5 billion this year. But that encompasses all revenue sources, including federal money, fees, fines, lottery profits, grants and tuition at South Carolina’s 33 public colleges and technical schools.

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