South Carolina State Superintendent of Schools Jim Rex let a little of the English teacher in him reveal itself during the Union Rotary Club meeting Tuesday afternoon.
He wanted to give club members his view of where the state of the public education system is and what he hopes the future can bring.
So he started with a famous opening line of a Charles Dickens classic: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .”
Rex told the club that line is probably true for many people at any given moment, but when it comes to the public school system in South Carolina it definitely is now the case.
“It’s been an incredible two and a half years,” Rex said, “and I’m proud of the progress our schools have made.”
There were several issues at center stage pertaining to education when he ran for office in 2006. Part of the progress he spoke about has been taking on some of the most persistent of those issues, one of which centered around private school funding.
Rex was and still is against any vouchers, tax credits or other plans that would take money away from the public school system and give it to private schools without them being held accountable.
He is committed to accelerating innovation in education, reforming accountability to ensure its success, expanding public school choices for parents and students, promoting fair and equitable school funding and elevating and reinvigorating teaching.
And from those commitments some of “the best of times” have come for the state of public schools in South Carolina.
He informed Rotarians standardized test scores have increased annually through all benchmarks in the last several years. South Carolina also now is No. 1 in the nation on improved SAT scores and for the first time in the state’s history, it’s seeing its highest rate of people passing the GED test — around 6,600 people ages 17-80 years took and passed the test last year. Rex said that’s a good indication the state’s work force is going back to school to become more educated.
The state also ranks No. 1 in the nation in one graduation statistic. Rex said more than 74 percent of students in the state in 2008 graduated high school and that’s not including GED graduates or people who graduated after a longer time period than the standard four years.
Another important improvement since the state superintendent took office, which he found out about a week ago, is that the state’s achievement gap is on the decrease.
Rex said every school struggles with the achievement gap, but with still a long way to go for students from economically struggling families to completely catch up to their peers, the state is seeing all students move forward and those at the bottom of the gap moving forward faster.
On the legislative side, he and his department played an influential role in reforming and improving the state and federal school accountability systems when the Legislature approved his plan to end PACT testing in 2008 and replace it with a new and better test giving parents, teachers and students needed feedback to improve achievement. The measure also put in place a five-year cyclical review system of all accountability efforts to make sure other measures are working and recommend any changes if needed.
“That was not only a great victory in the South Carolina Legislature, it was unanimous,” Rex said.
He’s also pushed for and been granted more flexibility for schools on how they spend their dollars and has gotten legislation approved to create a turn-around school program where the state department of education can go into historically unproductive schools and replace the principal, go through a one-year redesign and then replace teachers if necessary.
All of these improvements and initiatives are the direct result of Rex’s and the education department’s commitment to the students in the state’s public school system.
“When it comes to children and adults in a school, the children have got to win,” Rex said.
But there’s still those “worst of times.”
“South Carolina is moving forward,” Rex said. “Not as fast as I’d like but we’re making progress.”
The state’s public school system, like many other state agencies, is facing a budget crunch. Rex said $500 million was cut from the department’s budget last year and about 1,000 teachers were lost statewide. That number could have been higher if it hadn’t been for federal stimulus dollars the state received earlier this year.
The state superintendent also reported that out of the about 700,000 children in the public school system last year, 52 percent of them received free and reduced meals which means for the first time in South Carolina history a majority is at or below poverty level.
To highlight that issue even further, Rex said public schools are seeing hunger in their students. Children have been coming to school with stomach cramps and aches because they haven’t eaten. Some have started sending backpacks of food home on Fridays with some children.
The state’s image also is becoming a problem, according to Rex.
“I understand image is only a perception — it isn’t reality — but it matters,” he said.
Rex doesn’t mind being criticized, otherwise he wouldn’t have run for office, but he doesn’t like being laughed at and said much of the recent publicity centered around some state public officials and citizens has tarnished South Carolina’s image.
It’s time to get back to promoting the state by talking about the good things it has to offer.
“Let’s talk about the attributes in our state and our public school system is one of them,” Rex said.
He also sees no sense of emergency from the state’s leaders. There are some big systematic areas state officials should be dealing with that affect children’s quality of life, but there’s no sense of urgency surrounding them.
He wants public officials to take on more risks and become more courageous instead of only worrying about political issues. Rex admits they can do the right things, but sometimes those moves can be done so slowly in the end they are counterproductive.
He also wants students to understand expectations will be on the rise and adults to know that it takes everyone to make the next generation successful.
“If you think of South Carolina as an airplane and we’re all on it together and this airplane is rapidly losing altitude,” Rex said, adding it doesn’t matter why it’s losing altitude, “if that plane goes down, we’re all going with it.”
He said South Carolina definitely is heading in the right direction to improve its “human capital” but it’s going to take more than just showing up when needed.
With 700,000 kids in the public school system and the state’s retention of those children after high school at a high rate, South Carolina’s future is going to rest on how those students in the public school system are cared for and taught now.
“What we do for them and with them, that’s going to shape what our state looks like in the next 50 years,” Rex said. “South Carolina has tremendous potential, but we’ve got to pull together.”