Who Controls Education Policy in South Carolina?
There is one question that we should all ask when analyzing elements of South Carolina government: Who controls it? Answering that question can often be a profoundly frustrating experience, as many of those in charge are largely unaccountable to citizens.
This is especially true for education, with concerning results: South Carolina ranks as having one of the worst education systems in the country. With education reform likely to be a pressing issue in the 2018 legislative session, now is an important time to better understand who controls the educational system and why it is unaccountable to the people.
Statewide, K-12 education is technically overseen by three different entities: the Department of Education (DOE); the State Board of Education; and the Education Oversight Committee (EOC). However, the authority of the DOE is quite limited. Furthermore, the Superintendent of Education – the only statewide elected education official – serves mostly in an administrative capacity with minimal policy input. Instead, education policy is shaped by the State Board of Education and the EOC. In addition to being the most powerful entities controlling education, they are also the least accountable, and answer not to citizens, but to lawmakers.
The State Board of Education
The State Board of Education is the policy-making body for South Carolina’s K-12 education system, and the more powerful of the two entities. The board sets the state’s academic standards for students, sets textbook requirements, and issues teacher certifications. The superintendent of education serves as the secretary and administrative officer to the board.
The State Board of Education is comprised of 16 members elected by lawmakers (one member from each of the state’s judicial circuits) and one member at-large appointed by the governor, for a total of 17 members serving four-year terms. Members of the board generally have a background in education, however there are no formal experience requirements to sit on the board. Once appointed, members may only be removed for serious infractions under the law by the governor – meaning they cannot be fired at will.
It is virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable in a system like this. With the exception of one member, the board answers to regional, not statewide, representatives. Further, citizens are unable to hold any single legislator responsible for the actions of a board member, as each member is elected by an entire legislative delegation.
What does the state board do?
Among many others, the board’s principle responsibilities include:
Creating performance standards: The board is directed to adopt grade specific performance-oriented educational standards for every level of the K-12 system, including math, science, English, and social studies. Standards are reassessed, at a minimum, every seven years by both the board and the EOC. Using these standards, districts develop the curricula that are taught to students.
Selecting educational material: The board prescribes textbooks and other instructional materials for the state’s public schools. Schools that do not comply with the board’s textbook criteria are ineligible for state financial aid, unless their corresponding school district provides its schools with a specified amount of free textbooks.
Certifying teachers: The board controls who educates South Carolina’s students by setting the criteria for and certifying K-12 teachers. The board also hears disciplinary matters regarding teachers, and may revoke their license for just cause.
The board also defines the “areas of critical need” in which teachers can work, in order to be forgiven for debt under the SC Teacher Loan Program.
The State Board of Education influences nearly every facet of education in South Carolina from teachers, to students, to the curriculum itself. But because its members are elected by regional legislative groups, it is unaccountable to citizens. The only real check in power the board faces comes from the Education Oversight Committee.
The Education Oversight Committee
The Education Oversight Committee (EOC) is an independent advisory group made up of educators, business people, and elected officials. The EOC’s role is primarily one of oversight, evaluation and approval. The EOC works in tandem with the state board to shape many of the policies affecting South Carolina’s schools, including assessing education standards and identifying low performing schools.
Legislators also control who sits on the EOC. Almost all of the committees 18 members are legislators, their designees, or their appointees. The superintendent sits on the EOC (or her designee), but only as an ex-officio non-voting member. Like so many other powerful boards and agencies in South Carolina, the majority of the EOC’s members are accountable only to a few legislative leaders.
What does the EOC do?
The Education Oversight Committee was created to oversee the implementation of the Education Accountability Act and other education-focused legislation. Over the years, the duties of the EOC have adjusted to keep up with changing laws, but its original function of oversight remains the same. Its responsibilities include:
Reviewing assessment programs: The State Board of Education is responsible for adopting assessment programs, which are first deployed to select schools as “field tests” that track student performance. The EOC then evaluates the success of those field tests.
Providing recommendations: After review of the initial field tests, the EOC must provide constructive recommendations about their effectiveness to key influencers in South Carolina’s education system, including: the State Board of Education; the State Department of Education; legislative education committees; and the governor. The Department of Education must then incorporate the changes recommended by the EOC before they are implemented in all schools.
In addition to making policy suggestions, the EOC is charged with making funding recommendations to the General Assembly. These recommendations may include changes to teachers’ salaries, early-childhood programs, and other areas under the Education Improvement Act.
Issuing school report cards: The EOC, in cooperation with the state board, is tasked with developing an annual report card for the purpose of informing the public and the General Assembly about each school’s performance. Schools that are identified as performing poorly will be further examined by a special “review team”, for which the EOC develops the membership criteria.
With the State Board of Education forming policy and the EOC providing feedback, these two entities control the direction of education in South Carolina.
Under this structure, it is virtually impossible for citizens to hold the agencies that control education responsible for their actions, or to affect changes to education policy. While both the State Board of Education and the EOC allow comments and proposals from the public, the reality is that both entities are only accountable to the lawmakers who control their budgets and appoint their members.
Lawmakers created the laws that give power to these centralized entities, and also appoint the vast majority of individuals who comprise them. Their solution to repair the education system has largely involved increased spending, but this strategy has not offered promising results. Experts and educators may develop innovative plans and solutions to reform education in South Carolina, but between the laws designing the educational system and the legislatively-controlled entities that implement and govern it, it will likely be very difficult to implement them.
Instead, true reform must start with addressing the structure of the education system itself and dissolving the legislative monopoly that controls it.