House Speaker Jay Lucas is a man on a mission to reform South Carolina's failing education system for the first time in more than 30 years.
"We have left generations of children in poverty behind in this state and every year that we don't act [on education], we'll continue to do that," said Lucas, a powerfully built Hartsville Republican whose tired eyes mask a palpable intensity.
"We've got to buckle down and do it," he said in an exclusive interview this week. "If it was easy, somebody would have done it over the last 42 years. Part of the problem is it's not easy."
When asked if there were anything he's wanted more in his two decades of service in the House, the answer was simple: " No."
Good. It's about time for someone at the top to step up. As a state, we can't sink much lower on how our schools perform. And with legislators underfunding the state's legally-mandated base student cost by more than $4 billion over the last decade, our bottom-of-the-barrel state K-12 schools desperately need the full attention of the General Assembly.
There's a lot of blame to go around for why change has been slow, Lucas admitted. But it's time to stop pointing fingers and get something done so more kids aren't snared in failing schools, he urged.
At the beginning of the 2019 session, Lucas introduced an expansive, 84-page education reform bill that focuses on a broad array of education policy to try to upend how learning is being delivered in South Carolina.
"I'm the last guy that should have put this bill forward, because I'm not an education person, never served on the education committee," the speaker said. "[But I'm] concerned about education. ... I spent six months learning about the system so I could put forth a product that we could begin debating."
Lucas said his bill, which is mirrored in a companion Senate bill, essentially is a big policy statement on education. It focuses on several areas to press education forward:
Career development. Lucas said the bill pushes earlier and more attention on preparing K-12 students to be ready for work, college, and career pathways.
Testing. The bill seeks to cut some of the seemingly endless standardized student testing and revamps a "Read to Succeed" program for improving early reading skills.
Changing remediation. It would move student remediation to K-12 schools to allow more students to be ready for college.
New teachers. It would increase the pay for starting teachers.
More accountability. The bill would create major changes for underperforming schools and districts, including possible consolidation of small districts.
Critics may point to critical big-ticket items that the bill doesn't cover — the need to stick to the base student cost and the formula used to calculate it or the struggle to pay existing teachers more to stop a hemorrhage from K-12 classrooms. But, Lucas points out, there are other bills in place to accomplish those things, both of which will be part of budget discussions. His policy bill would set a new framework for what's happening now.
Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell (D, Lancaster) this week outlined on Facebook that she was backing the measure because "Speaker Lucas believes strongly in public education — and because I believe in the process. The bill is at the subcommittee level, which is the point for shaping the bill, getting input, and making changes. If it's not a good bill at the end of this process, I won't support it, but I have confidence that it will be."
With about 70 co-sponsors ranging from conservative Republicans to more liberal Democrats, the speaker's bill should pass the House. It's up to the Senate to make sure it moves on it, too.
"There's nothing more important that we've dealt with, however, than this issue," Lucas said. "This issue is critical to where we go as a state."
Lawmakers must move K-12 education forward so we don't keep failing our children. But they also need to use a huge state surplus to pay existing teachers more and stop shortchanging students by not investing the money the law requires them to spend.