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Rep. Allison elected to lead SC House committee that will craft response to court ruling

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Rep. Rita Allison of Spartanburg County was chosen Wednesday to lead the House committee that will guide the Legislature's response to last month's Supreme Court ruling on fixing South Carolina's education system.

The House Education and Public Works Committee elected Allison without objection. No vote was taken.

The former Spartanburg 5 school board member and nine-term legislator becomes the first woman to lead that committee, and the first woman in 12 years elected to lead any legislative committee.

Newly elected Speaker Jay Lucas asked Allison to take the job. She left the House's budget-writing committee to do so.

"I love education. It has my heart. ... I truly felt led to accept the position," said Allison, R-Lyman. "We've got a big task before us."

After her election, Lucas said no one is better qualified to lead a committee that takes on new importance in the upcoming session. Allison served on Ways and Means' K-12 subcommittee. She formerly worked for the state's Higher Education Commission. She also was an education adviser to former Gov. Mark Sanford.

Allison said her committee will work to answer the high court's ruling that lawmakers must correct their failure to ensure all children can succeed in school.

But she acknowledged she found the court's decision confusing. While ruling in favor of the poor, rural districts that sued the state 21 years ago, the justices blamed the failed system on both legislators and district officials. The order told them to work collectively to solve the problem but provided no direction. And, while calling the decades-old funding formulas a complicated, outdated scheme, Chief Justice Jean Toal specifically said money alone is not the answer.

"I really felt they didn't want to make a decision, so they put it back in our lap," Allison said after the meeting.

The plan must focus on equipping schools with good leaders and qualified teachers that can turn schools around, and reinforcing pre-kindergarten programs so children start school ready to learn, Allison said.

"I'm not sure it's about money as much as vision," she said.

Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said she's thrilled with the committee's selection. Coupled with last month's election of state Superintendent Molly Spearman, she said it gives her hope that lawmakers will move forward on education.

"It's a great day for the education community in South Carolina," she said.

The committee will also consider any changes to the Department of Transportation. Finding a way to fix South Carolina's roads and bridges will be another top priority in the upcoming session.

Committees selected their chairmen after Lucas doled out committee assignments Wednesday. The retirement of Rep. Phil Owens of Easley this year left an opening on the education committee.

Chairmen were re-elected to all committees except Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs. Rep. David Hiott of Pickens was elected chairman, after the former chairman was assigned instead to Ways and Means.

Thirteen new members were sworn in during the special session. South Carolina has long ranked at or near last nationwide in female representation in the Legislature. Last month's elections resulted in one additional woman in the House, bringing the total to 21 of 124 members.

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