MYRTLE BEACH, SC – June 24, 2009 – State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex fielded questions on topics ranging from federal stimulus funds to school choice this morning during his annual “State of the Schools” presentation at the South Carolina Association of School Administrators’ annual leadership conference in Myrtle Beach.
Instead of a speech, Rex’s presentation took the form of a 55-minute interview with WIS-TV anchor Judi Gatson that was carried on live streaming video, available to anyone with a computer and Internet access. Questions came from educators in the audience, as well as from Internet viewers.
Rex said that $185 million in federal stimulus money now coming to school districts across the state should help save an estimated 500 teaching jobs and 100 non-teaching positions that would have been cut otherwise, but he warned that schools still may face increased class sizes because of state budget reductions.
He also expressed disappointment that the General Assembly has not made more progress on comprehensive tax reform and equitable public school funding.
“We’ve been talking about the need for reforming our state tax system for at least 30 years, and it affects not just education, but other important state services,” Rex said. He thinks reform that broadens the tax base may well lower individual taxes while reducing the state’s reliance on sources of revenue – such as sales tax – that fluctuate with economic conditions.
“Waiting for the economy to rebound and not reforming our tax system means we’ll still have the same problems in the future,” Rex said. He is “not optimistic” that a recently-passed bill creating a Tax Realignment Commission “will do what needs to be done to provide the resources South Carolina needs to be competitive in the 21st century.”
Other topics that spurred questions during the video session included:
• No Child Left Behind – which Rex said likely will be re-authorized by the federal government next year. He hopes the new version will be supportive, not punitive for underperforming schools.
• Consolidation of school districts – Rex does not support consolidating districts by state mandate, but prefers incentives for districts that want to consolidate services for economy and efficiency of operations.
• National standards – Rex said South Carolina will participate in the development of national common core academic standards for English Language Arts and mathematics. If adopted, they would be “folded in” with current state standards without additional cost.
• Stipends for National Board Certified teachers – Rex said the National Board process has been a success in South Carolina, but it can’t “carry the load” in attracting and keeping the number of quality teachers the state needs. He also favors teacher pay for performance based on student outcomes, incentives for teachers to work at underperforming schools and alternative certification programs to attract non-educators to enter the profession.
• School safety – schools have to be held accountable for keeping their school climate and learning environment free from violence, drugs and bullying, Rex said. That’s more likely when school employees have a sense of teamwork and community.
• School choice – Rex supports public school choice being mandated by the General Assembly, but remains opposed to taxpayer-funded vouchers or scholarships for students to attend private schools. This is not the time to be spending money to incentivize people to leave our public school system, he said.
• Accountability – Rex said schools and teachers are going to be held responsible for students’ performance on accountability tests despite the influence of other factors such as poverty and family circumstances. Retention does not help struggling students, Rex said, but innovation, extended learning times and different approaches to teaching can promote achievement.
In addition to the live and Internet audiences for Rex’s interview, more than 500 persons took part in a chat room for the event. Rex continued the online discussion for 20 minutes following the interview.