The Ugly Fiefdom

I’ve been writing this blog for two years and among my first posts were several “research articles” on the state of education in South Carolina.

With elections this year, including State Superintendent of Education (a position for which I have a preferred candidate – see column to the right), I’m reposting excerpts from those earlier pieces.  This for the benefit of the thousands hundreds four or five people who read The Spy now, but didn’t back then.  These posts are also particularly germane in the campaigns and debates for a number of state offices in which the citizens of South Carolina entrust their educational system and their children’s futures.

July, 2008: “Do Public Educators Hate South Carolina’s Children?

There is no question that South Carolina’s educational environment is dismal – a situation not unique to the Palmetto State. So, really, what’s not to hate?

Educational systems are particular fiscal black holes. For instance, according to the “Annual Salary Study of Selected School, District, and Personnel,” by the South Carolina Department of Education, the state spends – on an average – over a half a billion dollars ($516,685,102) just on administrator salaries.

Consider, in a state where the median HOUSEHOLD income is less than $40,000 and 12.5% of the families are below poverty level, those responsible for South Carolina’s lousy education system – the school administrators – are doing pretty well for themselves.

There are 8,868 people in 47 administrator job titles in the South Carolina school system, each averaging $67,000 per year. That’s about 168% of the median household – not individual – income.

The state invests funds and children’s futures into a system and with people who repeatedly fail to deliver. Taxpayers are fleeced annually by self-serving education “professionals” whose true motives – at this point in history – need to be carefully scrutinized.

That was followed with “Who’s Responsible For South Carolina’s Schools?:”

There are 82 District Superintendents of which 64 (78%) have between 25 and 40 years of experience. Eighty one (98%) have more than 10 years of experience.

  • 77 Asst Superintendents/Instruction
    • 58 (75%) 25-40 years
    • 100% with 10 or more
  • 65 Asst Superintendents/Non-Instruction
    • 36 (55%) 25-40 years
    • 48 (74%) 10 or more
    • “Missing data” on 17 (26/%)
  • 203 Secondary Head Principals
    • 96 (47%) 25-40 years
    • 194 (96%) 10 or more
  • 480 Secondary Asst Head Principals
    • 95 (20%) 25-40 years
    • 366 (76%) 10 or more
  • 227 Mid/Jr High Head Principals
    • 93 (41%) 25-40 years
    • 216 (95%) 10 or more
  • 347 Mid/Jr High Asst Head Principals
    • 93 (41%) 25-40 years
    • 262 (76%) 10 or more
  • 635 Elementary Head Principals
    • 302 (48%) 25-40
    • 604 (95%) 10 or more
  • 425 Elementary Asst Head Principals
    • 94 (22%) 25-40
    • 332 (78%) 10 or more

Of the 2,541 people in these 9 administrative positions state-wide, 38% of them (970) have 25 to 40 years of experience. Eighty-six percent have more than 10 years of experience.

These are the people – the front line commanders – who are and have been responsible for the performance of South Carolina’s public schools. For whatever argument might be made about legislative handcuffs or political interference, the fact remains that THESE are the people who make local school policies. So, what can be expected of THEM?

Apparently, very little.

The school system – the state education process – has failed and has failed for years. These are the people in charge.

In August of that year came ” ‘Public Education’ or ‘Education For The Public?’:”

The arguments, debates, conversations and wailing are traditions. “We must do more for public education!” Usually, “more” means spend more.

Yeah, THAT’S worked.

South Carolina – not a rich state – does a pretty fair amount of spending for education.

C’mon… over HALF A BILLION DOLLARS a year just for administrator salaries? What’s that … 22% of the general fund appropriation?

Put another way, 75% of revenues derived from South Carolina’s sales tax earmarked for K-12 education goes for school administrators’ salaries.

Forty-eight percent of the state’s general fund and over 18% of total funding went to K-12 education. So, please, don’t keep belly aching for more money. The stewardship of those funds is and has been a scandal for decades.

John Stoessel of ABC had an interesting piece a couple of years ago that touched on South Carolina:

I talked with 18-year-old Dorian Cain in South Carolina, who was still struggling to read a single sentence in a first-grade level book when I met him. Although his public schools had spent nearly $100,000 on him over 12 years, he still couldn’t read.

So “20/20” sent Dorian to a private learning center, Sylvan, to see if teachers there could teach Dorian to read when the South Carolina public schools failed to.

Using computers and workbooks, Dorian’s reading went up two grade levels — after just 72 hours of instruction.

His mother, Gena Cain, is thrilled with Dorian’s progress but disappointed with his public schools. “With Sylvan, it’s a huge improvement. And they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re on point. But I can’t say the same for the public schools,” she said.

The current – long-failed – way of educating kids has become an ugly fiefdom and comfortable oasis for administrators and even some teachers.

South Carolina has GREAT kids.  Is the state legislature, the executive branch and the education bureaucracy providing for them the schooling they deserve?



12 thoughts on “The Ugly Fiefdom

  1. Garnett – you’ve reinforced a convincing argument for vouchers by referencing the Stossel piece.
    I too am extremely interested in all things education in SC since I have three boys in 1st, 6th and 10th grades and I recruit heavily in our high schools.
    I firmly believe we need to cut the number of districts to no more than 2 per county (5 in Lexington is ludicrous). Merging school districts beyond that takes local control away from parents.
    I’d like to see the elected position of State Superintendent of Education eliminated and replaced with a Governor appointed Secretary of Instruction. That change puts the onus on the governor to get busy on a fix.
    I support the concept of education credits – that gets the parents focused on ensuring they are getting their money’s worth. Yes, it will kill some public schools. I think that’s a good thing, some of them need to be closed – the competition will force all schools to improve or die.


    • Colonel: The problem with your idea of a Governor-appointed Secretary is that the State Legislature will NOT give the Governor more authority, particularly over such a vast bucket of money. That was part of my impetus for the “Lead or Follow?” post. We don’t need the General Assembly or a political party to have as much power as is already being exercised. The fact that they do already is a major reason why reforms don’t happen in South Carolina. That’s why the state needs people who ARE independent and won’t toady to the status quo. Ya think a state senator or representative is gonna let money – ANY money – leave his/her district? Not if they can control it, they won’t.


      • Shoot Garnett, I was assuming we were talking about the perfect world. I concur with your assessment, as long as there is “legislative” control over SC’s educational structure; we will not make any meaningful headway. The power loss is too much for our representatives to take.


  2. The voucher idea seems like a good one, but isn’t the answer. All because these kids get vouchers that say that the state will pay for them to attend private school, doesn’t mean that the private school has to let them in. If Hammond or Heathwood only has a few openings, and 5,000 kids have vouchers (private schools don’t have “districts”, so they aren’t limited to those kids living in Lexington 2, Richland 1, etc.), what are the odds that anything will improve for those kids with vouchers? And who’s to say that the openings at the private schools will be filled by ANY of the voucher kids over those willing to pay $12,000 a year to go there?

    Again, the idea of the state paying for public school kids to attend private schools to get a better education seem good on paper, but I’d say the odds of it actually improving the education of kids in SC aren’t great because of the small number of “voucher kids” that will actually get into those private schools.

    The main way vouchers could be effective is the mere threat they pose. If the SC Department of Education sees that their precious money could be leaving their books and going to private schools, they may be motivated to make a change. Reading levels and basic math don’t motivate most of the people running our school system, but money does.


  3. Take a look at what the two Legislators (Boyd Brown & Creighton Coleman)in Fairfield County cooked up to fix Fairfield County’s long ailing school district. They each proposed legislation that would add 2 appointed members to the seven member elected school board, and they also appoint a five member finance oversight committee to make certain the board spends wisely. The Governor Vetoed the Bills but the Veto in the house has been overridden.

    The message is clear, elected officials seem to be obsessed with the power of the office, (on all levels) and constitution be damned.


  4. Glad you brought these post back. This is something I have pondered for some time. I finally came to the conclusion that most people who are posting responses are pretty much right on target.

    Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond the local area and the key seems that we need to get the Government out of schools and back into the hands of the people who have a vested interest. Their children.

    I see that South Carolina is in line for a tremendous Federal Grant to climb on board the newest program coming out of DC. I guess this will fall in with School to Work and No child left behind and totally ignore the true needs of the schools.

    Too many chiefs and not enough indians we used to say, but I guess that is politically incorrect so let me change it to too many chefs spoil the stew.

    Thanks for timely and thought provoking information and count me as a regular visitor.

    One final thought. It is very likely that we are trying to do entirely too much in the schools and forsaking the true mission and that is to educate our students to become educated as they progress through the system. That is what we were always led to believe. Learning is a lifetime process that begins on your first day of school

    Oh, I am a product of the public school system in South Carolina, so if I make an error. Blame it on the schools.


  5. Pingback: Is Anger Enough? « The Garnet Spy

  6. @ Abba Joe,

    You’re assuming (I think) that more private schools wouldn’t open. I believe they would, and that they would thrive.


    • But, Timothy… why should we depend on private schools? We spend billions on public education, we have a network of resources – disproportionate they may be – and we have the capability to truly educate our children. If we’re gonna rely on private schools, then eliminate public education completely and let parents shop around for learning like they do car insurance, wireless phone services and shoes.


    • Whoa, Timothy. So, you’re saying that the demand will cause new private schools to open? Isn’t education for the sole purpose of profit why the public education system has gone downhill? You honestly think that with vouchers, you’d see Hammonds and Heathwoods popping up all over Columbia? Who’s paying for those hundreds, if not thousands of teachers, buildings/facilities, and administrative costs? Remember, they don’t get public funding other than the vouchers themselves. And with that being their sole source of income, the private schools would all become publicly funded. How would that work out? And how long would that take? That’s just anything but realistic.

      Would privatizing schools result in better education? Probably. I agree with you there (that’s why health care, social security, and other institutions are better privatized). It’s just not going to happen the way you say it will within the next 50 years.


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