We need to reinvent public education in South Carolina

By Phil Noble

Cindi Ross Scoppe is one of the most important people in South Carolina. And, she has recently put forward one of the most important ideas for this state – perhaps the most important – for the last generation or so.

Now I know that sounds like extreme hyperbole, but bear with me on this one, I think I’m right.

First, about Scoppe and her idea.

She is the editorial writer for The State newspaper in Columbia. On a personal level, I don’t really know her very well. Over the years we have had a lunch or two and talked on the phone some. She has been kind enough to publish some of my columns – but that’s about it.

When I googled her, I learned that she grew up on a tobacco farm outside of Burlington, N.C., went to UNC at Chapel Hill and worked on a couple of newspapers in North Carolina. She has won a boatload of journalism and civic awards from state and national organizations for her work.

Her bio on The State website says “She is a lover of cats and a baker of cakes and volunteers with the (Episcopal Church) parish’s annual mission work trip to Appalachia.”

But most importantly, she “has covered state government and the General Assembly since 1988, first as a reporter and now as an editorial writer. She focuses on tax policy, public education, election and campaign finance law, the relationship between state and local government, the relationship between the people and their government, the judiciary and the executive branch of government.”

In short, she knows more about state government, politics, politicians and policy than just about anyone in the state of South Carolina.

I don’t always agree with Scoppe, but I always read her as she is insightful, poignant and from my perspective most importantly, her heart is in the right place and she has the right values.

Now, about her idea.

A few weeks ago, Scoppe wrote a column with this headline, “Imagine if we built a brand-new school system for South Carolina.” The first paragraph read, “LET’S TRY an experiment: Let your guard down, pretend everyone is acting in good faith, and imagine we’re creating a brand-new public school system — using all of our knowledge and experience but no allegiance to the existing system.”
She then walked through each of the major issues that have crippled education in this state for the last generation – lack of funding, too many school districts, teacher quality and pay, inequality based on race and geography, course offerings and administrative structures, etc. In each area, she identified the problem and in broad terms outlined the solution.

The overarching theme – and the essence of its radicalism (and it is radical) is the first word of her column’s title – imagine.
In that one simple word, imagine, Scoppe has identified the problem and the solution. It is a lack of imagination on the part of lawmakers and educators and the great potential of what we could do if we set aside all the problems of what is and simply imagine what could be.

Robert Kennedy expressed the same idea in a different way when he often quoted George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask why not.”

We in South Carolina have suffered from an utter lack of imagination.

Scoppe’s thesis is that we should identify the problems, develop the best possible solutions and then do it – whatever it takes, no matter what the cost.

Instead, today we begin with a broken system, suffer from a legislature that is dominated by small-think and refuses to act – and then they force us to settle for continuing poor schools and uneducated children. And, we have.

All across the country, other states are improving their educational system– but not in South Carolina. We’re not even close. We are at the bottom and heading in the wrong direction.

Scoppe’s idea is truly big, bold and radical.

Some would argue it’s too big, too bold and too radical and we should not take the risk. My response is to ask “what do we have to lose?” If our schools are rated the worst in the country – and they are – then why not try something big, bold and radical.

To return to Scoppe’s inspiration – imagine.

Imagine… that there was a grassroots, bottom up “reinvent education movement” that produced a plan developed by the people and then they demanded that the so-called political and education leaders “do it.”

Imagine… how we could transform education if everyone – students, parents, teachers, community – got really, really excited about this big and bold initiative and then they went to work in their local schools to make it happen.

Imagine… that the business community got involved and provided resources and created apprentices and connections and pathways for a smooth transition for students from schools to careers.

Imagine… that South Carolina became known nationally and even globally not for having the worst schools in the country but as the state with the biggest and boldest ideas to reinvent education in the globally connected, digital world of the 21st Century.
While I breathe I hope.

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston, is founder of World Class Scholars and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at phil@philnoble.com and get his columns at www.PhilNoble.com.

Author: Duane Childers

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