Funding of public schools in South Carolina


Public educators in South Carolina insist the sustained and dramatic failures in their schools are the inevitable consequence of under-funding. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is plenty of public money being spent, and it is coming from many different places.

Money for public schools comes from three sources: local, state, and federal governments. Local money is collected through property taxes (and now from the state sales tax based on the tax swap) and local sales taxes. State funding is a complicated function of a “base” student cost, matches of local funds, offsets for counties with smaller tax bases, and a range of programs or categories which assign money to specific programs implemented by schools and districts.

Most state money is tied to a certain account, fund, or program before the local district receives it. Federal money is also provided in the form of grants and programs, and these are calculated on the number and type (income) of the children living in the area that a school serves. Like most state money, federal allocations are not tied to the specific child.

The projected average per-pupil funding in 2009-10 was:
$4,867 state
$1, 097 federal
$5,516 local
-or- a total of $11,480 per pupil, excluding local bond revenues

$11, 480 per child is a huge sum of money. This is $200 more per student than spending in Georgia and $2,000 more than per-pupil spending in North Carolina. In fact, spending growth in South Carolina since 1960 has been the highest in the entire nation. Total South Carolina K-12 appropriations in 2009 will top $7.9 billion, excluding local bonds.

In recent months, declining state tax revenues have dropped. Superintendent Jim Rex has stated that total cuts to public schools now reach $363 million. On a per student basis that is $500 per child. Total public school spending is still close to $11,000 for every student.

More striking than the $11,000 per-child spending is the fact that South Carolina’s “worst” public schools, those serving the most under-privileged children, are allocated the most money. Because so much federal money is tied to census determined population demographics, Title-I and other programs send thousands of dollars per students to the lowest income areas of the state. This money is often a function of total population, not the number of students actually attending the public schools.

The state also provides supplementary funding to districts with a lower-than-average property tax bases. With all this extra money, some of the most economically disadvantaged students attend schools with more that $20,000 per-pupil in funding. Looking across all districts in the state, higher per-pupil spending is not related with student performance as measured by standardized testing.

Sadly, very little of this appropriate money reaches the child. Analysis by the SC Budget and Control Board shows than since 2000, only 45 cents per dollars reaches the classroom in the form of “instructional” spending. This includes classroom materials, books and supplies, teacher salaries, and other costs directly related to teaching children. The 44-cent figure is a statewide average. Because of the enormous administrative bureaucracies operating in districts throughout the state, the figure in many poor urban and rural counties is even lower.

10 responses to “Funding of public schools in South Carolina

  1. Vouchers, please, to those parents who want them.

  2. As school districts struggle to find ways to balance budgets without cutting funding to essential programs, I would like to offer a suggestion. Eliminate salaries to board members. Sec. 59-1-350 of the South Carolina Code of Laws states in its entirety:

    Compensation of members of boards of trustees and boards of education
    Members of county boards of education or board of trustees may serve without pay.
    Each member of the board may receive a per diem for attendance at board meetings
    and may be paid mileage to from such meetings. No member may receive per diem
    and mileage unless in actual attendance upon a meeting of the board. When any
    member of a board is directed to travel outside the county on official business of the
    board, he may be allowed actual expenses incurred as a result.

    In addition to the common sense interpretation of the meaning of this statute, the principle of non-salaried boards is firmly established in South Carolina. Sec. 1-7-970 directs the board to serve without pay but allows for per diem “as provided for members of state boards, committees and commissions.” The reason for this is obvious. When board members become salaried, they become part of the administrative bureaucracy they are supposed to keep accountable (especially financially accountable). Every tax dollar paid for a salaried board member is a dollar diverted from student instructional support. If salaries to board members were not illegal, they would be morally wrong. However, we have the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office that the law “does not permit salaries” for school board members (1977 WL 665442). The SC School Improvement Council Board of Trustees is an example of the hundreds of boards that follow this compensation model: “No member shall receive compensation for his/her services as a SC-SIC Board of Trustees member. The Board of Trustees may authorize reimbursement of reasonable expenses incurred by Board members on behalf of SC-SIC associated with attendance at meetings or delegated responsibilities if sufficient funds are provided by the General Assembly for this purpose”
    Recently, Governor Sanford correctly admonished a school district for requesting an increase in allotment for meals from $25 to $34. ). I don’t believe he is aware of the salary issue because I have written him and no one was willing to discuss it with me. His failure to correct this before he leaves office may be a blemish on his resume of accountability.
    Most school districts are in compliance with 59-1-350. Of 85 school districts, 33 receive no per diem. Most of the rest receive a per diem of $25 to $100 per meeting. Only a few receive salaries ( The worst offenders are Horry, Georgetown, Greenville, Beaufort, and Newberry School Districts.
    I suggest Governor Sanford direct the Attorney General to re-issue an opinion of Sec. 59-1-350. Then, allow school districts until the current budget cycle is completed to come into compliance. Those districts that fail to comply would have their board salary totals deducted from their state allocation.

  3. The best solution is TAX CREDITS, not vouchers.
    This means that parents and corporations -whose own spending on education reduces the cost of education to the state- should receive a reduction in their state tax liability.
    In other words, a parent paying $6,000 out of pocket for private school is saving over $11,000 in taxpayer spending since that child is not at a public school.
    Similarly, a company that donates money for low-income children to receive scholarships is saving the same amount per child.
    A minor tax credit, even just for the state portion of per student spending, would leave thousands more for those students who do remain and public schools.
    More importantly, since a credit is a reduction in liability to the state (not a government payment to a school) the private schools will not be onerously regulated and micromanaged in the way public schools are now.

  4. “The best solution is TAX CREDITS, not vouchers”

    What about parents who don’t have enough tax liability to take advantage?

  5. Student Scholarship Organizations (also called Scholarship Granting Organizations and Student Tuition Organization).

    Here is how this has worked in state liks AZ, GA and PA:

    – They are IRS-recognized charities, with 90% of income spent on scholarships to students at more than one school
    – Scholarships only to children from families at 200% of federal poverty level
    – Donors can claim credit up to 50% of their state income tax liability but not more than $50,000
    – Statewide credits initially capped
    – Money collected by SSOs that is not issued as scholarships is sent to State General Fund

    In practice they are very popular, and the statewide caps (usually in the tens of millions of dollars) and often meet in the first few months of the year

  6. Bill Steiner,

    I am in complete agreement with your thoughts. I am the board chairman of a low-tuition Christian private school (Orangeburg Christian Academy) and we have never considered any sort of compensation for board members. Our board holds meetings and makes decisions for the school, but the decision to join the board (upon election or invitation) is voluntary. I can’t imagine being payed to do this job. It is something I owe the community for all the many blessings of the state and nation. By the way, I am a busy attorney and Reserve Lt. Colonel (recently back from Afghanistan) and must cut into my practice to find time for board issues/meetings.

    The difference: In a private school every penny must be managed well and we have no “fat” to spend. In fact, our school went to a 4-day week for the economic savings to the parents and school. We do all possible for even minor savings (like cutting off utilities in parts of the building not needed at any time).

    It amazes me to discover public school board members received compensation. Do we want members of a board who are motivated by salary or service?????? Then, Jim Rex has the nerve to cry about budget cuts. Tax Credits and scholarships are the way to go, as it would force the public education system to reform and cut out all the fat (like board member compensation). Thank you for your posting.

    Sola Fide,

  7. Bill Connor,
    Thank you for your service in the military and in the schools. Setting aside the concept of public service and the current economic situation, salaries for board members are illegal. They exist solely on an uninformed public and a wink and a nod from local politically appointed judges who are afraid to upset the status quo. I hope Gov. Sanford cleans up this mess. BTW, A salary of $9000 a year for 10 monthly meetings (ave. 3 hrs.) equals $300 per hour. OUTRAGEOUS.

  8. The only real option to clean up the mess is to eliminate public schools entirely and pay for each child to attend the private (or home) school of his choice. Leave regulation and control of the school to the parents or guardians.

  9. Does your school budgets follow a centralized, decentralized, or a mixed allocation process?

  10. There is plenty of money going to our schools. What we need is to direct the money to the classroom teacher. First eliminate all salaried educators that do not spend time in the classroom. Do away with
    teacher certification and double teacher beginning pay. Hire teachers with degrees
    in area of subject matter , not education major. Classroom teachers should be the highest paid employees in the system.

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