On June 10, 2016, the Greenville Online published commentary from SouthCarolinaCAN Deputy Director Dana Laurens.

With just days remaining before we head to the polls, many of us are tuning in and paying close attention to our state and local candidates’ positions on key issues. We know where they stand on fixing roads, on taxes and how they would help put unemployed South Carolinians back to work.

But perhaps most noteworthy is what many candidates haven’t been saying. Namely, do you know where the candidates stand on education issues? Do you know how they would vote on bills in Columbia that will directly affect our state’s students? And, just as importantly, whether they would prioritize the issue of education at all in the upcoming legislative session.

Fixing our schools is an easy problem to ignore. Kids can’t vote and adults are often transfixed with solving the problems that cause them heartburn on a regular basis: the pothole on I-85 that spills your coffee or damages your tires and tax bills that seem to increase each year as wages remain stagnant. Each an important issue to be sure, but education is better described as a “silent crisis.” Aside from the 2014 Abbeville court decision and the task force work that followed, there’s no daily jarring pothole to focus voters’ attention. Just classrooms scattered in communities across our state with kids who are at risk of being ill equipped for high-skilled jobs that will catapult them into the middle class.

Let’s take a sobering look at some of the challenges facing our students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), deficits early on in academic careers compound over time. More than 60 percent of South Carolina’s 4th graders and more than 70 percent of 8th graders score below proficient levels in math and/or reading, which unfortunately places our state in the bottom third nationally.

As highlighted in a recent New York Times article on graduation rates, only about a quarter of students statewide were ready for either college-level math or reading. Left ignored, this reality only compounds as students progress through our education systems. (source: http://nyti.ms/24ArH0Q)

Put simply, if we aren’t prioritizing our students, slightly behind 4th graders can become struggling 8th graders who can end up unprepared after high school, or fall even further through the cracks.

A recent SC Education Oversight Committee report found that of the thousands of high school grads who earn state scholarships to attend college, many are unable to retain those scholarships beyond their first year, including less than one quarter of recipients of the HOPE Scholarship. Worse yet, our two-year technical colleges are spending millions on remediation instead of on the course work and training students need to graduate and take advantage of our state’s growing workforce opportunities. (source: http://1.usa.gov/1XFHayb)

We know higher education offers degree holders a chance at better employment prospects and a lower chance of being unemployed. But we must address the underlying challenges in our system today so that our higher education institutions are able to adequately prepare students for careers.

There are many ideas about how to fix those schools that are desperately in need of reform and improvement, and an ongoing debate is important. But we have to make a commitment to keep education front and center so we can transform outcomes for students that need it the most. This crisis may be silent, but it’s too important to ignore.

So I urge all candidates running on Tuesday to fulfill their responsibility of helping our students become prepared to be productive citizens in our great state. Regardless of your party position, candidates, I implore you to discuss your positions openly with constituents. And voters, please have the courage to ask candidates these tough questions and find out where they stand on education issues that will impact your children and your community.

The hard truth is that while fixing roads is on all of our minds, with 66.7 percent of South Carolina jobs requiring a degree by 2030, there won’t be a need for freshly paved roads if we run out of qualified workers.

Let’s make our students a priority. Don’t they deserve it?

Dana is SouthCarolinaCAN’s Deputy Director. Her motto is: “You have to believe that all kids can learn. You have to be able to commit yourselves to do whatever it takes.”


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