SC Government Dysfunction: Ignorance, Apathy, or Ideology?

  • Thursday, August 15, 2013


A few random sad news stories of late have caused me to wonder why the S.C. Legislature does what they do. And after serious thought, it seems like there are three possible explanations – ignorance, apathy, or ideology.
Whatever the reason, we as a state are suffering greatly because of their actions.
Let’s begin by stipulating that all 170 members of the Legislature, House and Senate, are honorable and decent people that want to “do the right thing.” They love their children, are kind to animals, go to church on Sunday and have the best interests of all the people of South Carolina at heart.
Now, it might be difficult to prove that in a court of law, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume it’s true.
Now, consider the following recent random news stories:
First, education. This week’s news stories chronicle how we as a state are failing our children when it comes to education. It’s been going badly for a very long time, it’s getting worse and it does not have to be this way.
Yes, there are some very good schools in our state – a few that are even world class – but overall we’re failing. The state and county reports released this week show that we are making progress, (which we are) but still not meeting the (modest) education goals that we have set for ourselves. It’s as if everyone in the world were traveling to New York, only South Carolina was walking (yes each day we do make progress) but virtually everyone else – most of the rest of the states, and the industrialized world in general – was taking a plane.
And what happens if this goes on year after year, with little or no progress being made? It starts going in the wrong direction and simply put, we condemn our children to a life of failure. Again, a recent study by the authoritative organization Kids Count dramatically shows what has happened to our children – in one year our kid’s overall ability to succeed has dropped nine spots down to 45th among the 50 states. Today, 28 percent of our children are living in poverty, as compared to 23 percent in 2005, and 35 percent of our kids live in a home where parents lack secure employment, up from 30 percent in 2008.
So, what was the Legislature and Gov. Haley’s response this session to our education crisis? They cut funding for education. A recent headline in The State says it all: S.C. Governor’s Veto Pen Has Hit Education the Hardest. Since 2011, she has vetoed $110 million worth of public education funding. And if we go back four years and include higher education, the numbers are even worse. In those four years, S.C. cut public education, K thru higher education, more than any state in the union.
Yes, we were already near the bottom, and then we cut funding the most.
It’s now hard to imagine that in the 1980’s people were coming to S.C. from all over the country to study what we were doing to lead the nation in education reform. Yes, it’s true, they were. Thank you Gov. Richard Riley. (Full disclosure: Gov. Riley was the founder of the SC New Democrats, a group I currently serve as president.)
Second, state government spending. For many, the justification for cuts in education has been that overall spending is way out of control and we must cut spending and education is the biggest line item.
Well, one can make the ideological point that we are spending too much, but the facts are our competitors – other states – are spending far more. In fact, according to a study by the non-partisan Tax Foundation, we rank 48th in the growth of state government spending from 2001 to 2011.
What does this mean for making our state a more attractive state to live, work and do business? See the walking to New York analogy above.
So back to our original question – ignorance, apathy or ideology?
One would assume that our legislators read the newspapers as most of us do – they see the same studies and reports that come out on a regular basis – so let’s rule out ignorance.
Apathy? I would concede that these same legislators do “care” – though many would argue with me about this.
So that just leaves ideology. Contemporary writer George Packer said it best: “Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.” And that’s what we have here in South Carolina – political leaders that already know the answer. Their answer to every problem is to cut funding – cut it across the board for all of government, especially for education.
Our state is not having a debate about what kind of education we need, or what type of education is most effective. We are simply asking, “Does it cost money?”† And if the answer is “yes,” then the politicians simply cut it.
Although he is from Costa Rica, the author Fernando Araya captured South Carolina’s political leaders perfectly when he wrote, “Ideologies are mental prisons that produce blindness.”
Our state, and our children, are going blind.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. phil@scnedemocarts.org www.SCNewDemocrats.org

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