Last Thursday, a South Carolina Senate Judiciary subcommittee opened public debate on a proposed joint resolution to amend the 1895 S.C. Constitution's mandate to provide a "minimally adequate" education. S. 1136, sponsored by Sen. John Matthews (D-Orangeburg), would put a referendum before voters to change the Constitution "to provide that the General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools and shall establish, organize, and support public institutions of learning that will provide a high-quality education, allowing each student to reach his potential."
If only it was that easy.
Matthews and his co-sponsors, all Democrats, assert that the current constitutional directive sends a deeply negative message regarding the educational investment South Carolina ought to maintain for its children. Matthews told The State, "The significance of the language is that it changes the 1895 Constitution. That was an era that ushered in 'Jim Crow' for the state."
Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jim Ritchie (R-Spartanburg) commented, "The language of the Constitution is silent on the quality of education we should provide. We're wrestling with this because words do mean something."
Well sure, but it depends upon who's doing the talking, and I don't see any state Republicans signing on to Matthews' proposed resolution.
Subcommittee member Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston) thinks that the resolution will win General Assembly and voter approval, but there will be harder work after that. "It's a no-brainer ... What then?"
What then, indeed, as South Carolina has a storied past of denying education not only along racial demarcations, but also socioeconomic ones, chiefly to keep labor costs down and a pool of available workers in place? One need only remember exactly who lived in the mill villages or worked in the tobacco fields. T'weren't no college kids.
More than two dozen people spoke in favor of the resolution during the subcommittee hearing, but it was on the fast track as committee members had to make other committee appearances and an 11 a.m. Senate roll call. One can only do so much in an hour.
A website (www.goodbyeminimallyadequate.com) is under construction and backers are soliciting a goal in excess of one million signatures from the general public for the resolution.
More public hearings are scheduled, but the resolution's placement on the November 2008 ballot is questionable.
As has proven true with much in South Carolina politics, S. 1136 will likely split the General Assembly along party lines; one side will decry the eventual financial burden of the constitutional change while the other will claim equally as fervently exactly why the state must invest even more in public education.
In a state where there is an incoming chairperson of the state Board of Education who is a homeschooler; a governor who is a notorious fiscal libertarian; conservative state legislators who will cite a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling strengthening the "minimally adequate" language; a business class at odds with what it can, wants to, or will pay for skilled workers; a local labor pool which graduated from marginal public schools; and a population that generally views the pursuit of knowledge with suspicion, I find it hard to believe that bill will ever emerge from the subcommittee.
And that's a shame because repeating history is not only uninspiring, it fails to generate sustainable incomes and revenues.