South Carolina's educational shortcomings (and a brighter future ahead)

South Carolina's educational shortcomings (and a brighter future ahead)

It's no secret that South Carolina ranks behind other states when it comes to education. With school starting back up this month, let’s look at some recent education figures and talk about what can be done to turn things around.

With an average SAT score of 1030 during the 2021-22 school year, South Carolina ranked 36th among all states, falling below the national average score of 1050. Our average math and reading/writing scores of 504 and 526 fell behind the national averages of 538 and 529, respectively.

South Carolina’s graduating class of 2022 had an average ACT score of 18.9, nearly one point behind the national average score of 19.8. In fact, we ranked among the lowest-performing states across all assessment areas (English, math, reading, and science), with our biggest gap between the national average coming from English scores. 

The trend continues with high school completion, where South Carolina had a graduation rate of 82% for the 2019-20 school year (the latest year provided by the National Center for Education Statistics), compared to the U.S. average of 87%. Even regionally, South Carolina fell way behind, performing worse than every state in the Southeast. 

In terms of reading proficiency, South Carolina fourth graders on average scored 216 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, according to 2022 data, the same as the national average. However, South Carolina eighth graders scored 254, below the national average of 259.

So, what is behind these shortcomings, and how can things be improved? Answering these questions requires a look under the hood of the education system and a glance at several recent and ongoing reform efforts. 


The past, present, and future of education in SC

One problem that held South Carolina behind for decades was our antiquated state education funding model, which, prior to getting a major overhaul last year, allowed for minimal funding flexibility and failed to address unique student needs.

The Reason Foundation described the funding model as a hybrid system relying heavily on allotments by category, noting that this can cause funding inequities and result in a lack of transparency and accountability. The Palmetto Promise Institute in a 2019 report called the old funding model “extraordinarily complex” and noted an “extreme lack of financial transparency”.   

Last year’s overhaul, enacted via budget proviso, provides greater local autonomy and allows public education dollars to better flow where they are needed.

The change will provide school boards with more options to address issues facing their districts, such as the need for high-quality teachers. This is critical, as research consistently shows that having dedicated, high-quality teachers is a key element, if not the most important factor, in student achievement. 

Steps to improve teacher recruitment and retention are also being taken at the state level. Base teacher pay has increased by over 16% since 2021 and is currently $42,500. The current state budget also provided a $2,500 pay hike for all state employees making less than $50,000 or a 5% raise for those making more.

These are great changes that have a real shot at improving educational outcomes, but they’re only part of the picture. The truth is, parents need more freedom – and legislators are finally starting to embrace the power of choice in education.

School choice legislation 

This year, South Carolina joined the growing number of states supporting school choice by passing S.39, an education scholarship account (ESA) program to help parents pay for private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, computers, or transportation for their children to attend other schools (including public schools), depending on their needs.  

However, the program is somewhat small in scale, supporting just 5,000 students in its first year and 15,000 by full implementation. It’s also limited to middle- and low-income families.

Fortunately, other school choice bills are on the move. S.285, which passed the Senate in March, is another scholarship program to help pay for various education expenses, including private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and even homeschool expenses. However, the proposal has broader student eligibility and would be funded through private tax-deductible contributions, in contrast with S.39’s state-funded model.

A separate bill passed by the House this year (H.3843) would require all districts to adopt an open enrollment policy, allowing parents to enroll their children outside their normally designated schools where feasible. Districts would be in charge of setting policy specifics to maintain flexibility based on student and community needs.

These options will empower parents by putting them in charge of their children’s academic futures, creating an environment that is better suited to meet the unique needs of students. As the evidence shows, the current system is just not up to the task.

With recent reforms setting the stage for a brighter future, state legislators can transform education by getting these bills and other school choice measures across the finish line in 2024. Student achievement and the future generation depend on it!