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Superintendent Molly Spearman says Gov. Nikki Haley's education proposal includes providing more loans and scholarships to teachers in poor, rural school districts


GASTON, South Carolina — Gov. Nikki Haley's education improvement plans include offering students the chance to graduate from college debt-free and providing up to $200 million annually for school construction.

The Republican governor announced the third year of her education initiatives Wednesday with state Superintendent Molly Spearman at a school in rural Gaston.

Most of it will be included in her 2016-17 budget proposal, which she'll release Friday. The announcement comes as legislators face a June deadline for developing a plan to fix South Carolina's broken education system. In November 2014, the state's high court ruled on a then-21-year-old case that the state fails to provide educational opportunities in poor, rural districts.

But Haley insists her plan has nothing to do with that lawsuit.

It designates $15 million for recruiting and retaining teachers in impoverished areas. That includes annual tuition scholarships of up to $7,500. To get the scholarship for four years, students would have to commit to working eight years in a district with turnover rates exceeding 12 percent. The incentive money would also fund scholarships for teachers and teachers' aides who already work in those districts and want to earn a certification or master's degree.

That part of Haley's proposal puts money behind an idea she first announced last year.

Haley's budget will again put $29 million toward technology improvements — honoring the third of a three-year commitment. This year's plan expands on that pledge with an additional $5 million designated to the neediest schools, plus $5 million to provide roughly 10,000 poor students with Internet access at home.

New to Haley's initiative this year is a request to borrow up to $200 million annually for schools, starting in the 2017-18 school year. Her proposal, to set aside 1 percent of the state's debt capacity for K-12 schools, would require separate legislation.

Haley said she can't ignore the leaky roofs, moldy walls and other unsafe conditions in schools she visits. Improving education includes improving the buildings where students spend most of their day, she said.

"My heart is always in rural areas," said Haley, who grew up in tiny Bamberg. "Morale matters. ... We want them to feel safe and we want them to feel they're worthy."

Like Spearman, Haley first wants to evaluate districts' infrastructure needs. The governor's budget designates $2.5 million toward a statewide review of school buildings.

A House panel has recommended creating a low-to-no-interest loan program for facilities. But Spearman has said poor districts can't afford to pay back such loans.

Haley's budget plan would also:

—Provide $19 million to raise the state's supplement for bus driver salaries.

—Increase charter school spending by $11.5 million.

—Add $1 million to expand the state's virtual school. Last school year, nearly 40,000 students statewide took a course through the online program, Spearman said. She touted it as a way to increase offerings in rural districts that otherwise can't afford it.

—Spend $165 million to cover growing populations at traditional schools while increasing the "base student cost" by $80 to $2,300.

That main funding source for schools is distributed to districts based on a 1977 formula adjusted annually for inflation. The state hasn't fully funded it since the Great Recession budget cuts. Doing so would take $520 million more than Haley's proposing, according to the state budget office.

Haley's budget would add money through the formula for high school students taking classes where they can earn credit toward graduation and college.

Currently, students in some districts have to pay $350 to take a dual-credit class.

"Many, many students walk across the stage at graduation and get a high school diploma and a two-year degree at same time," Spearman told a Senate committee earlier Wednesday. "We need that available for all students."

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