Accountability is a Tough Pill for Some to Swallow

Jon Butzon

By Jon Butzon, Former Director of the Charleston Education Network

There it is again, the term “watchdog” applied to the Office of Regulatory Staff.  These are the folks who were supposed to be overseeing construction of the V.C. Sumner nuclear plant, creating some accountability for our money, for our safety, and for the future of nuclear power in South Carolina.  Watchdogs are supposed to pay attention and bark when something is amiss.  It turns out that this watchdog was really a lapdog and never even whimpered, much less barked.  I will leave it to the reader to determine in whose lap this mutt has been lounging. I imagine we all wish the Office of Regulatory Staff had taken their role of watchdog seriously and had barked loudly and incessantly billions of dollars ago.  Now it remains to be seen if our elected leaders will not only bark, but bite.

Meanwhile over at the Statehouse, Special Prosecutor David Pascoe is barking loudly as he uncovers evidence of wrongdoing on the part of legislators and their cronies.  I, for one, am delighted to hear him barking as he moves to hold the objects of his investigation accountable.  It turns out accountability is in short supply in South Carolina and I applaud Mr. Pascoe’s efforts in that regard.  I am puzzled, however, at the deafening silence issuing forth from our legislative body concerning support for his work.  I would assume that there would be great and public approval for ridding the legislative chambers of whatever stain the process uncovers.

On another front, this time it’s public education, recent watchdog efforts for accountability are not being met with much support and it’s interesting to see who is out to silence the watchdogs.  There is a great hue and cry to disestablish the Education Oversight Committee and the South Carolina Charter School District.  It seems that both organizations have had the temerity within their own spheres of responsibility to openly challenge awful results in the education of our children, your children and my children.  They have dared to suggest that schools be held accountable for results and be held accountable for a quality education for the children of this state. These are awful results paid for with our money, your money and my money.

As tasked by the South Carolina Legislature, the Education Oversight Committee has been engaged in a three year process to revise the state’s publication accountability system.  All the while, schools have had a three-year hiatus from being rated. This work has not been eagerly supported by the education establishment, and understandably so.  The news is not good.  And now the education establishment is scrambling to make it stop.

South Carolina’s education standards rank 43rd in the Nation in terms of rigor. Last year, fewer than half of all students – White, Black, Hispanic, well to do, and low income – in grades 3 through 8 met the standards in English Language Arts (ELA) including reading, and math.  These are the proverbial 3Rs, theoretically the bread and butter of public education.  We might not be able to make children proficient in calculus or physics or Latin, but we sure as shootin’ ought to be able to produce proficiency in the fundamental skills of our native language and in basic arithmetic.

In manufacturing, the proportion of things produced that don’t meet the required standard is called the scrap rate.  Some manufacturers set target scrap rates of less than one bad part in 10,000, or .0001 percent.  If that seems unrealistically stringent, then you set your own acceptable scrap rate for our schools. Last school year and the school year before, our public education scrap rate topped 1 out of 2, 50+%. That seems high to me.  Can you imagine scrap rates like that for Boeing, or BMW, or Volvo, or Michelin?

Is 50% the best we can or should expect from our public schools?  Heck no!  And the EOC agrees. But they had to “negotiate” something less.  So, when you see your child’s school report card next November, remember that in the schools the SC Department of Education grades “Excellent,” an “A,” on average only 66% of the students met the state standard in ELA and Math.  If we graded schools by the same standard we grade our children, 66% is a “D”.  In schools graded “Good,” on average only 47% met the standards in ELA and Math.  That’s an “F.”  And it only gets worse the lower the school grade.

By the way, you paid $9.5 billion dollars last year for those outcomes, and that doesn’t include money you paid to build new schools or for debt service.  I didn’t get my money’s worth.  How about you?

There is a movement afoot to disestablish the EOC, the education watchdog.  The hens want hens to guard the henhouse, the school house where your child is supposed to be successfully taught the 3Rs and isn’t.  For years, we have had the education version of V.C. Sumner debacle at work in public education. Some changes are needed at the EOC, no doubt.  Two changes are particularly needed at the EOC.  One, they need to bark more and louder.  Two they need some bite.

Similarly, the South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD) has drawn the ire of a number of its schools.  Amazingly, SCPCSD thinks its schools ought to successfully educate practically all their students.  When that hasn’t happened, SCCSD has moved to revoke the charters of those crummy schools.  Wow! Totally new concept.

Understandably, those schools are not happy.  So, they have applied to move to a new sponsor, Erskine College.  Erskine doesn’t have an accountability process.  All the better for the failed schools. The SCPCSD has said, “NO!”  They don’t seem to be okay with the notion of simply allowing schools not meeting the basic standards just to move down the road and continue bad performance under someone else’s auspices.  Once again, our children will get the short end of the stick. But that doesn’t seem to be of concern to the schools that are looking for an easier row to hoe.

Predictably, legislators have been drawn into the discussion and there is some talk about disestablishing the SCPCSD.  Let’s see.  Somebody doesn’t like the Special Prosecutor digging into the muck and mire of the Statehouse, so let’s remove him. And somebody doesn’t like the EOC calling a spade a spade about the failures of public education, so let’s get rid of that body.  And, heaven forbid the SCPCSD actually holds schools accountable for results.  That seems to be a long-held, almost automatic answer for South Carolina.  You don’t like having to account for results, you don’t like having to produce results for the public money entrusted to you, and you don’t like the black eye you’ve earned for not doing your job. So, do away with that annoying barking dog. Horse feathers!  I would urge the state Board of Education to adopt the SCPCSD accountability model tomorrow.  Good for kids, but bad for adults which is why the probably won’t do it.

Hang in there, Mr. Pascoe. Hang in there, EOC. Hang in there, SCPCSD.  We need you more than ever.  And we need you to bark louder and more often.

It was at least thirty years ago I heard some policy maker or business leader observe that South Carolina is at the bottom of every list we’d like to be at the top of and at the top of every list we’d like to be at the bottom of.  We’re still there.  And we will stay there as long as we don’t hold our public servants accountable for results.

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