A penny for the schools. How education reform fares in South Carolina

TEST scores are front-page news in South Carolina these days. People want to see what their penny is buying. In 1984, the legislature passed the Education Improvement Act (EIA) and funded it with a one-cent-on-the-dollar increase in the state sales tax. What the people got for their penny (some $240 million in 1986) was perhaps the most sweeping education reform package the United States has seen recently, praised by top education leaders nationwide. A survey showed that more than 80 percent of educators, parents, and other South Carolina citizens view it as ``money well spent.''

For teachers, the EIA means better pay (up 32 percent in three years), more paperwork, and a shuffling of resources that makes some classes smaller, others larger. The state now intently watches test scores, awarding extra money to successful teachers and schools. For students, the EIA means extra help for those who falter, tougher graduation requirements, more study, and less time for sports, pep rallies, and student government.

At Pelham Road Elementary School, for example, groups of two to 12 remedial reading students spend a period each day with EIA teacher Mildred Dillard. Reflecting a statewide trend, reading scores are improving, but there are other benefits as well. While giving individual instruction, ``we can encourage them to do their other classroom work,'' Mrs. Dillard says, and the students are responding.

The number of remedial math students at the school dropped from about 100 two years ago to 48 now, says EIA teacher Victoria McGuire. Thanks to the remedial instruction, students in the higher grades are passing basic skills tests and returning to regular classes. With the drop in enrollment, Mrs. McGuire no longer has an EIA-funded teacher's aide. ``We're working ourselves out of a job,'' she quipped.

While the school lost a teacher's aide, it gained recognition. For its performance, Pelham Road Elementary received EIA-funded ``incentive grants,'' used for purchases such as maps and science materials.

There is not enough EIA money for remedial teachers at every grade level. At Hughes Middle School, Nettie Jones has students in her regular eighth grade English class who were identified by tests as needing remedial reading instruction. She gives them encouragement and extra drill, but they do not receive the concentrated instruction she believes they need. But under the EIA, her classes are smaller than before. Maximum class size for math and English is 25 students. And schools with at least 125 remedial students receive an EIA teacher's aide.

To keep math and English class sizes within the limit, administrators let other classes balloon - up to 35 students for some science and social studies classes. Not all staff members approve. Complains one guidance counselor, ``I'd rather teach a math class with 35 students than a lab science class that big.''

At every grade level students are tested in basic subjects - reading, writing, and math - and are given remedial instruction if they fall short. Remedial students in South Carolina are typically improving four or more points (on a scale of 100) in their standing compared with other students - a gain the state Department of Education terms ``impressive.''

Tenth-graders are given an ``exit exam,'' with remedial instruction for those who fail, and three more chances to pass before graduation. Starting with the class of 1990, those who do not pass the exit exam will receive a certificate instead of a diploma.

In some schools, stiffer graduation and college admission requirements have resulted in an unintended exodus of students from fine arts courses. Statewide, the rate of high schoolers enrolling in such courses dropped 8.5 percent in the first two years under the EIA, but rebounded slightly this year. Guidance counselors sometimes advise ninth-graders to abandon ``frills'' courses such as orchestra, art, or drama in favor of science, language, and social studies.

To take part in extra-curricular activities, a student must pass four courses a semester, including all courses required for graduation, and maintain at least a ``D'' average. A statewide study last year showed an average of six student athletes per school lost eligibility.

For two and a half years, Toine Davis was first-string quarterback on the Wade Hampton High School football team. Then he ended his junior year failing two required courses. The summer school schedule let him make up only one course, and he was forced off the football team for his senior year. ``It was a big letdown,'' he says. ``Some Fridays I couldn't come to school. I couldn't stand to be around'' the pregame excitement. Now Toine has ``buckled down'' and is doing better. His coach is negotiating for him to attend a state university.

Some students are now ruefully aware that more than 10 unexcused absences will cost them a credit for the course. Student absenteeism in the state dropped by a third during the EIA's first year, and for two years South Carolina students have led the nation in attendance.

New rules limiting out-of-class time dramatically affected life at Wade Hampton High. There used to be a Friday afternoon pep rally before every ``Generals'' football game. Now there are only three rallies a year and attendance suffers at non-rally games. Time pressures keep students from accepting offices in student council, and most candidates run unopposed. The freshman officers could not fit student council into their schedules and were unable to participate. Leaving school early for sports practice is also ruled out. With limited practice time, tennis players have to choose between the doubles or singles team. And, complains one student, ``We haven't had a decent match team since I've been here. People don't have the time.''

Yet, adds Chris Lee, at the top of Wade Hampton's class of '87, ``I am in favor of the changes. South Carolina was in the dumps educationally. We need to keep up.'' When Chris enters Georgia Tech next year, he will have college credit for four advanced placement courses, with ``AP'' test expenses paid by the EIA.

In proposing the EIA, former Gov. Richard W. Riley noted that over a third of South Carolina's half million school children could not meet basic skills standards. The reforms received impetus from the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Compared with the flurry of education reform nationwide, there was a ``basic difference in the Riley approach,'' according to Greenville County School Superintendent Roy Truby. ``He didn't just say `let's set higher standards.' What's not popular is raising taxes to support the higher standards.''

One challenge reformers face is keeping the EIA intact. With shortfalls in other education dollars there is a danger - resisted so far - to use the separately budgeted EIA funds to take up the slack.

What `Riley Pennies' buy in South Carolina

Some students call it the ``Riley Penny.'' South Carolina's former Gov. Dick Riley made the Education Improvement Act the centerpiece of his eight-year administration and proposed funding it with a 1 percent sales tax increase.

Here are some of the 62 EIA programs:

Programs for specific subgroups of students: Kingergarten required for all districts. More ``relevant'' vocational education, with evaluation of placement successes. Programs for gifted and talented, a half day for impoverished 4-year-olds, and special education for emotionally and mentally handicapped. Required remedial instruction for students below standards in reading, writing, and math, with reduced pupil-teacher ratios.

New standards: Statewide criteria for promotion of students. Standards for achievement in science for grades 3, 6, and 8. Tougher graduation requirements - more courses, and an exit exam. No sports or extracurricular activities for failing students. Tougher rules for student discipline and attendance. Higher standards for colleges that prepare teachers.

For schools: State pay for EIA-required teachers. Grants to reward improvement in achievement scores, attendance, student attitudes, and parent participation. Sanctions or extra help or both for schools that fall short. Drug counseling.

For teachers: Tougher certification requirements, higher base pay, incentive pay for top teachers, more in-service training, regular evaluation, tuition reimbursement, and - for would-be teachers in areas of critical need - college loans. According to William Page, a business executive who headed the governor's team that drafted the EIA, the act has already met four of its goals for 1989 and is on schedule for the fifth. In both elementary and secondary grades, achievement scores exceed the national average. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are closing a gap with the national average. South Carolina students now lead the nation in attendance.

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