The beginning of the year is a good time to think about goals to be met, projects to be finished, wishes to be fulfilled. On matters of governance and public policy in South Carolina, that's an awful lot to think about.
This remains one of the harshest, most regressive and undeveloped places in the nation, and no one feels this privation more acutely than children. S.C. ranks 47th in the overall well being of our children, according to the annual Kids Count survey for 2006. This figure reflects a host of depressing data on infant mortality, low birth-weight babies, poverty, single-parent families, school dropout rates, and more.
What kind of people would allow their children to live in such deplorable conditions generation after generation? The answer, in a word, is men.
S.C. has the lowest number of women holding public office among the 50 states — and the number has dropped since 1992, when we ranked 36th in the nation. Just over 52 percent of South Carolinians are women, yet they make up less than 10 percent of the General Assembly and no woman holds statewide elective office.
The result of all this testosterone bubbling under the Statehouse dome is that we have a legislature more interested in securing gun rights and concealed weapons permits than in securing quality education, school lunches, or health care for its children.
As our General Assembly opens the 2008 session there will be three important child-related issues to follow. The first is the ancient and eternal issue of school funding.
Schools are still paid for out of property taxes, which means that wealthy districts have modern school facilities and highly paid teachers; poorer districts — such as the historically black counties along the I-95 corridor — have decrepit buildings with collapsing roofs and leaking toilets and teachers who are not worthy of the title.
Last month State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex released recommendations for a new school funding formula that included giving districts money based on students' poverty and English-speaking abilities. Most of his recommendations are aimed at boosting the state's poorest school districts where test scores, salaries, and buildings lag behind wealthier districts.
"The gap has been widening, not narrowing, and I think most people see that as an anchor weighing our state down," Rex told The Post and Courier. But of course, this state has always been weighed down by poverty and inequality, and our General Assembly has not lost a minute's sleep.
Don't count on legislators to take any action this session either. House Speaker Bobby Harrell is already undermining Rex's recommendations with a study of his own that will surely find little fault with the present funding formula.
More likely to pass is a new 30-cent per pack cigarette tax. Research has shown that the higher the cigarette tax, the sharper the decrease in smoking. That decrease affects children and teens most, because they can least afford the more expensive smokes.
At seven cents per pack, S.C. has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation. Even at 37 cents per pack, it would have the seventh lowest tax. So why not raise the tax to a dollar or more, as about 20 other states have done? The long-term effects on smoking rates and public health would start with today's children and last for generations. But our General Assembly has long been addicted to tobacco industry money and seems unable to break the habit. So South Carolinians will continue to have one of the highest smoking rates in the nation, starting with children.
And then there is the matter of daycare in the Palmetto State. Just in time for the new legislative session, The Post and Courier last week produced an outstanding series on the state's unregulated child daycare industry and the danger it poses for thousands of children. Will the free enterprise cowboys of the General Assembly have the courage to rein in the Wild West that is child daycare in South Carolina? Don't hold your breath.
It will take years to remedy the pathologies in our state legislature. It will take even longer to bring this woebegone state into the 21st century, but a good place to start would be to elect more women.
This is not to say that all women are virtuous and wise, but it is to say that women as a group bring a different set of values to the legislative process. Among those is the understanding that children are our most valuable resource; they must be nurtured and protected like any other precious resource. That is our responsibility as parents and citizens.
Why can't our legislators learn to take their responsibilities seriously? Perhaps because they are the wrong gender.