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A Penny for Your Thoughts: How a One Cent Sales Tax Transformed Education in South Carolina

On a recent sunny October afternoon in Columbia, Dick Riley made his way out of the Riley Institute’s WhatWorksSC celebration and headed toward his car. As he passed the concierge’s desk, a quiet voice called out, “Excuse me, is that Governor Dick Riley?”. Upon being told that it was indeed the former South Carolina Governor, the concierge asked if she could speak with him. “He was governor when I was in high school. I’ve always wanted to meet him. He was such a great leader.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “A movement that only moves people is merely a revolt, but a movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” It isn’t often that those who spend their lives involved in politics are able to say that they helped to change an institution, but many would argue that the passage of the Education Improvement Act (EIA) in 1984 did exactly that.

The passage of the EIA, which is detailed in the Riley Institute’s new book, A People’s Movement, spurred what many experts have heralded as one of the most comprehensive education reform movements in the country. With its emphasis on improved student achievement, which included increased access to advanced courses in historically underserved areas of the state, a pay bump for teachers, and improved accountability measures, the EIA gave hope to a state that had historically ranked at the bottom nationally.

In 1983, just 42 percent of South Carolina’s eighth graders earned passing scores on a basic-skills math test and just over 55 percent passed a reading test. Thanks to the EIA and several other statewide reform efforts, by the early 1990s, 73 percent of eighth graders in the state were passing the math test and 75 percent were passing the reading test in eighth grade.

But the improvement in test scores wasn’t the only thing to celebrate.  During the 1980s, South Carolina teachers’ salaries rose over 25%, which was a significant increase when compared to the national average of 19.7% (and was a much larger increase than many southern states at that time).

The EIA gave hope to a state that was weary of being, as former South Carolina Senator Heyward McDonald once said, “under the heap”. It pushed South Carolina to the forefront of conversations about what was possible. It is for this, and so much more, that we have Dick Riley to thank.

Read more about how the passage of the EIA became a blueprint for educational reform in the Riley Institute’s new book, A People’s Movement, now available at furman.bncollege.com.


Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at kelly.gregory0@furman.edu.