While state and local governments bear the bulk of the authority over local schools, the winner of South Carolina’s competitive U.S. Senate race next month could also play an important role in shaping the future of national education policy.
South Carolina’s education challenges have long been particularly pronounced, laid out in extensive detail in The Post and Courier’s “Minimally Adequate” series in 2019, which showed how gaping disparities have left thousands of South Carolina students unprepared for college or the modern workforce after high school.
This is the eighth and final installment of a series in The Post and Courier leading up to the election laying out the policy views of Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison on issues that matter most to South Carolina voters.
The responses to this candidate questionnaire have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Knowing what you know now about Secretary Betsy DeVos and her record at the U.S. Department of Education, would you vote to confirm her? If not, what qualifications would you be looking for in a Secretary of Education?
Graham: I would support Secretary DeVos for another term as Secretary of Education. I think she has done a good job in driving the education bureaucracy to be more teacher- and student-friendly. Her perspective on ensuring public schools deliver for every American is the correct one. So if she wants to serve a second term as Secretary of Education I would support her nomination.
Harrison: Knowing what I know today, I would not have supported this nomination. We need someone in this position who has an appreciation for public education, and experience at an administrative level in helping children from all backgrounds succeed. Secretary DeVos has abandoned students defrauded by predatory for-profit colleges, weakened enforcement of Title IX provisions protecting sexual assault victims on college campuses and proposed massive budget cuts to federal public school funding. When I taught high school at my alma mater in Orangeburg, I saw firsthand how decision-making in Washington, D.C., and Columbia affects teachers and students throughout the state. I know how powerful education can be in helping our children achieve the American dream because my education helped me achieve mine.
Do you support the expansion of charter schools or private school vouchers to help families afford to send their children to the school of their choice?
Graham: Every parent should have a choice when it comes to their child’s education. The school a student attends and the opportunities afforded to them should not be dictated by a ZIP code. Charter schools and vouchers provide parents the power and resources to determine their child’s education journey. The charter school concept has delivered, and I enthusiastically support its expansion. Charter schools, both public and private, have proven a good solution to a broken education system. We must continue to think outside the box when it comes to educating our students because what we have been doing is not working for everyone in South Carolina. I’m a product of public education, and we have many outstanding public schools across the state, but when our public schools fail, parents and children deserve alternatives.
Harrison: It worries me when we divert desperately needed public resources to private institutions, particularly at a time when our local and county governments are suffering from a steep decline in tax revenue. We still have so long to go to achieve educational equity in this state, with our rural public school students having some of the lowest math and reading scores in the nation. The Constitution of South Carolina only calls for the government to provide a “minimally adequate” education, but in 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled that many districts weren’t even meeting that standard. We need to make sure that schools in our poor and rural communities get the resources they need for all children to achieve.
Should the federal government do anything about the total student loan debt of more than $1.6 trillion in the U.S.?
Graham: Now is the time to make sure students are getting a good return on their investment. Many colleges automatically increase tuition expecting the federal government to provide more in terms of student loans, but fail to produce quality outcomes. I am willing to look at interest rate refinancing to lower the costs of student loans. However my main goal when it comes to our student loan programs is to make sure colleges are held accountable for outcomes and don’t necessarily increase costs just because they have the ability to do so. There are many outstanding educational opportunities in South Carolina from certificate programs, quick job training, and technical schools to a variety of public and private colleges and universities. Accountability falls to both the institution in their ability to train for the job market and the borrower for responsibly understanding that what they take out needs to be paid back in a timely manner.
Harrison: College tuition has been skyrocketing in recent years. I know the burden that student loan debt can put on a family firsthand. Approximately 8.2 million American borrowers are under the age of 24. For South Carolina’s graduates, the reality is even worse: One 2018 study found that South Carolina students held the highest median student debt in the country. This trend makes it harder for students to prepare for high-paying jobs. I supported the president (Donald Trump) when he suspended student loan payments as part of a COVID executive order. We need to go further by allowing people with student loans to refinance with low-interest rates and allow loan forgiveness for students going into certain professions.
Should the federal government cover more college expenses? Do you support making college tuition-free or debt-free?
Graham: If you think higher education is expensive now just wait until it is “free.” While some push for making college tuition-free the simple fact is everything in America cannot be “free.” A college education is very valuable in the 21st century, and I support more options when it comes to making college affordable and accessible. However, there are programs and opportunities currently in place such as dual enrollment and apprenticeships that provide students the experience needed to join the workforce without being burdened with significant debt. Just making something “free” doesn’t mean it will meet the needs of South Carolina’s diverse economy.
Harrison: I am not in favor of guaranteeing free four-year college for all students. However, costs are out of control, and we have to help students and their families address these crippling costs. We also have to make sure our community colleges and technical schools train students for the jobs of the 21st century so we can attract high-paying jobs to South Carolina. As senator, I will work to create “Rural Centers of Excellence” at our HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and state colleges and universities, where rural governments and small businesses will be able to contract teams of qualified undergraduate and graduate students supervised by professors to fill these knowledge gaps. In return, the program would reduce students’ debt burdens.
Should the federal government boost pay for America’s teachers?
Graham: Teachers should be cherished and respected. They are responsible for teaching our youth, and helping develop the next generation of America’s leaders. But when it comes to K-12 education I believe that it is a responsibility of state and local governments, not the federal government. Additional federal involvement in K-12 education is a slippery slope. I fear that if the federal government in Washington begins to pay America’s teachers it won’t be long before they also do things like take over the curriculum taught in our classrooms.
Harrison: Absolutely. We have a long stretch of failing public schools that sit along the “Corridor of Shame” and across our state. After graduating from Yale, I came back home to Orangeburg and taught at one of them. Many education disparities are caused by teacher and resource shortages. To undo this trend we have to listen to teachers and address their concerns by raising salaries. My Rural Hope Agenda addresses my plans to expand funding for programs that recruit and retain promising teachers for rural areas. To fund these efforts, I would expand the Teacher Quality Partnership Program, which invests in programs to develop high-quality teachers, and support the Rural Education Support and Training (REST) Act.
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.