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Columbia Business Monthly

Business Community Focuses on S.C.’s Subpar Education System

Mar 06, 2018 02:07PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By David Dykes

A report card last year on South Carolina’s system of education was dismal – the state ranked dead last in the nation.

Now, more voices are saying a subpar system is a threat to business, and corporate South Carolina should get behind educational improvements with a sense of urgency.

“The health of the business community and the health of the educational system are closely intertwined,” says Hank Hyatt, the Greenville Chamber’s senior vice president for economic competitiveness. “Both of them have to be healthy. Both of them have to be growing and aligned so that we can have a business community that is really prospering and accelerating its growth.”

A workforce shortage exists in South Carolina, creating a gap between the number of jobs available and qualified talent that employers need to fill them, he says.

Chamber officials, working with the Greenville County school district, are examining how to close the gap and how to “address the issues around talent and workforce in the community,” Hyatt says.

“Businesses really have to have skin in the game if we’re serious about our schools giving us the best possible to be workers and professionals in our economy,” says Mike Brenan, president of South Carolina at BB&T, and the governor’s appointee on the state Board of Education.

Businesses “consume what comes out of our schools at the end of the day,” says Brenan, who also co-chairs TransformSC, an education initiative of the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness.

In ranking states in 2017, U.S. News & World Report measured performance in higher education as well as primary and secondary schooling and pre-K education. Measures included percentages of adults with associate’s degrees or higher, rates of students completing public four-year and two-year college programs within 150 percent of the normal time, average tuition and fees for in-state students at public institutions, and average debt load of graduates from public and private colleges.

States also were ranked on percentages of children enrolled in preschool and on 10 basic criteria for the quality of preschools, including teacher training, class size, and teacher-to-student ratios. They were compared in national testing of eighth-graders in math and reading, in rates of graduation from high school, and readiness for college.

The rankings showed South Carolina 45th overall when measuring several categories, including education, health care, crime and corrections, infrastructure, opportunity, economy, and government. The state was last in education.

Massachusetts ranked first overall and No. 1 in education.

“I’ve seen these reports and these rankings, and I suppose there’s some validity to all of them,” Brenan says. “But you know, the other thing I’ve learned is that we really have some of the best schools in the nation in South Carolina. But we also have some of the worst on that level, too.”

The challenge, he says, is to replicate the best practices in the highest-performing schools and translate those to the schools not doing as well. “This is probably a 20-year journey to really get to see the kind of improvement I think we’d all like to see.”

TransformSC’s network includes more than 60 schools from about two dozen districts. The focus is not on test scores, but the process of changing the learning system and on competency-based education, personalized learning, and project-based education.

TransformSC partners with the state Education Oversight Committee (EOC), The Riley Institute, and others to evaluate TransformSC schools and districts.

At BB&T, new hires are taught what they need to know from a technical standpoint, Brenan says. “What we have a hard time teaching them is how to be collaborative and work in teams. We just don’t see them coming to us very prepared to do those kinds of things.”

He cited Michelin North America’s work in the Upstate and Boeing’s in the Lowcountry as effective examples of corporate involvement in schools.

The Michelin Challenge Education program provides support to public Title 1 elementary schools in the form of tutors, mentors, lunch buddies, and financial contributions. Michelin’s goal for the program is to provide human capital to positively impact the lives of disadvantaged children.

With emphasis on reading, science, and math, the program has spread throughout all Michelin locations in the U.S.

Education and economic development “are joined at the hip,” but many of the state’s largest manufacturers and employers are hiring people moving from elsewhere to fill skilled jobs, says Neil Robinson Jr., a Charleston lawyer and EOC chairman. “We should be able to fill a lot of them with our own folks, and we’re not. We’re not doing the job there.”

“The state’s not going to give Boeing $1 billion in incentives and then turn its back when Boeing says, ‘We need you to do something about educating kids and having qualified candidates for us to hire,’” Robinson says. “Getting industry to the table is key at every turn.”

Recent developments have magnified the state’s education challenge.

Last November, the South Carolina Supreme Court vacated a landmark decision over education funding, ending the legal case examining whether the Legislature provides enough money and support for poor and rural schools. Critics say that means many children will continue to flounder.

The state also lost more than 6,000 teachers last year, and 4,900 left the profession entirely, Robinson says. Salaries were a key reason, but a lack of support, administrative overhead, and a feeling of isolation likely were factors, he says. An in-depth analysis is planned to pinpoint actual causes.

Gov. Henry McMaster insists that if South Carolina is to remain competitive for future economic development and investment, students from all 46 counties must be ready to compete.

McMaster, in prepared remarks for his 2018 State of the State speech in January, said, “We want a multifaceted system, anchored by traditional public schools boasting the best teachers, principals, and technologies.”

He cited Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program, which works to increase the pool of available teachers and principals from diverse backgrounds.

But progress also will require systemic reforms, he said.  

Spiraling administrative costs have a direct impact on educational outcomes, McMaster said. Consolidating small districts will reduce costs, limit duplication, and put more money and resources where they belong: in the classrooms, the governor said.

The state also must continue to invest in school choice, he said.

McMaster also favors incentives for small businesses to participate with local high schools and school districts in apprenticeship programs for students interested in skilled trades.

He called for the creation of the South Carolina Workforce Partnership, a new initiative to connect businesses with high schools and technical colleges to collaborate on internships, dual credit, and certificate programs for students interested in the skilled trades – focused on rural areas of the state.

His budget also increases funding for workforce scholarships and grants so more students can access the financial resources to obtain certificates and associate’s degrees at the state’s technical colleges.

“The education system that we have is not necessarily inferior,” says Pamela Lackey, president of AT&T in South Carolina and TransformSC’s co-chair. “The education system that we have is a system that was designed 130 or 140 years ago for a very different economy.”

That economy revolved around manufacturing and agrarian activity, but future production, distribution, or trade won’t, she says.

Current and future South Carolina graduates must have knowledge of multiple languages, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, and social sciences, Lackey says. They also will need world-class skills in creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, and communication, she says.

The bottom line: South Carolina cannot fall further behind.

“Every state is looking at how do we transform the system that we have into one that will produce highly successful graduates so that they can, in fact, step into the economy that we have and that we will have,” Lackey says.