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S.C. House considers high school equivalency test bill after push by UM advocates

Bill on House floor now

By Jessica Connor

South Carolina legislators are considering a bill directly related to a resolution United Methodists passed at last year’s S.C. Annual Conference—a bill advocates say would make taking the high school equivalency test fairer and more accessible for all people across the state.

House Bill 4840, the High School Equivalency Diploma Accessibility Act, would require the State Board of Education to offer by Jan. 1, 2015, a pencil-paper high school equivalency diploma test as an alternative to the computer-based General Education Development test.

The bill has passed the House Education and Public Works Committee with amendment, and as of press time is awaiting vote by the full House. The session ends June 5, and the bill is scheduled for its second reading sometime between now and May 7. If it passes, it will then move to the Senate for consideration.

“The current GED only allows for a computer-based delivery mode, and that isn’t good for a huge swath of South Carolinians who do not have access to technology,” said Curtis Askew, chair of the S.C. UMC’s Task Force on High School Equivalency Testing and a member of St. Matthew UMC, Taylors. “If you look at the broadband map of South Carolina, especially looking at the Corridor of Shame, you have very low access to technology in terms of computer speed.”

Between that and the older age of a significant number of those without a high school diploma, “You’re increasing a barrier for people in getting a diploma,” Askew said.

Askew and other advocates are urging United Methodists across the state to read the bill (visit www.scstatehouse.gov/billsearch.php and enter 4840 in the search box), and if they are comfortable with the language, to call their legislators right away and encourage them to support the bill.

H4840 has bipartisan support and was originally sponsored by Rep. Joshua A. Putnam (R-Anderson), with co-sponsors Reps. Phillip D. Owens (R-Pickens), Tommy M. Stringer (R-Greenville), James Mikell Burns (R-Greenville), Samuel Rivers Jr. (R-Berkeley), Don C. Bowen (R-Anderson), William Clyburn (D-Aiken), Anne Thayer (R-Anderson), Donna Hicks Wood (R-Spartanburg), Don L. Wells (R-Aiken), Chandra Dillard (D-Greenville), Leola Robinson‑Simpson (D-Greenville), Robert L. Brown (D-Charleston) and Harold Mitchell Jr. (D-Spartanburg).

The bill stems from Resolution Responding to the Proposed Changes to High School Equivalency Testing: A Rallying Cry for Action in S.C., which the S.C. UMC supported last June and referred to Connectional Ministries. The resolution called for the conference to advocate through Conference Connectional Ministries and its 12 District Connectional Ministries for a more affordable and non-computer-based high school equivalency test, plus created a conference-wide task force that will develop a plan for local churches to become high school equivalency test centers and offer preparation.

When Annual Conference ended last June, the task force immediately began advocating for change, talking first with community stakeholders and, ultimately, state legislators about sponsoring legislation.

After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2008-2012 American Community Survey, poverty and low earnings appear to be tied directly to lack of high school diploma or equivalency. Of the nearly 3.1 million South Carolinians aged 25 and older, 15.9 percent had no high school diploma or equivalency. The general state median earnings were $31,361, but for those with no diploma or equivalency, the median was $18,102—by far the lowest of the other categories (e.g. high school graduate, some college, etc.). The poverty rate for those aged 25 and older was 30.4 percent for those with no diploma or equivalency, almost double the percentage of those with a diploma or equivalency.

High school completion is “one of the most significant things facing South Carolina as the country itself pulls out of the recession,” Askew said, noting South Carolina has an obligation to help its people achieve a high school diploma, whether through graduating high school in the traditional manner or through fair, adequate and accessible equivalency testing—both for basic quality of life reasons and for economic reasons.

“We can’t get around the total number of people in the state who basically do not have a high school diploma, and this is a route to accessibility for them,” Askew said.

Jay Blankenship, coordinator for the Greenville region’s Personal Pathways for Success and the Greenville Workforce Investment Board Youth Council, has been working with Askew and the UMC task force on fairer high school equivalency testing since the beginning; his organizations were among the first to collaborate with the UMC on this effort.

Blankenship said he is very supportive of the legislation, which he said would make testing far more accessible and, in doing so, improve the economic potential of the state.

“A high school equivalency diploma is something that all these individuals (without a diploma) will need whether they are going into a career or into higher education,” Blankenship said. “It allows them access to higher education.”

He said not only will the bill provide more accessibility, but it could also decrease testing costs because it tumbles the monopoly one vendor—GED Testing Service—has. When other vendors are introduced, sometimes the competition can bring down costs. Currently, Blankenship said, it costs $150 to take the new version of the GED, which can be extremely high for people without a diploma struggling to earn a reasonable income.

The Rev. Kathy James, director of Connectional Ministries for the conference, said it is exciting that state legislators are paying attention to the resolution for affordable and accessible testing that the annual conference endorsed last year.

“It has been wonderful to see a faithful United Methodist working to transform the world of high school equivalency testing in our state,” James said of Askew. “Curtis serves as an example of the difference we can make as United Methodists when we work together to be a voice for the voiceless in places of power.”

Askew said the bill has a good chance of being passed.

“It got kicked around pretty hard in committee, so I think where it is now, most folks are comfortable with it, including the test-taking providers,” he said.

To find your legislator and how to contact him or her regarding H4840, visit www.scstatehouse.gov/legislatorssearch.php and enter your address; you will get a full list of your representatives, including their phone numbers and email addresses.

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