High school equivalency bill now SC law thanks to UM advocacy

By Jessica Connor

A bill championed by United Methodists is now law in South Carolina.

After a strong push by United Methodist advocates, the South Carolina General Assembly unanimously passed House Bill 4840, the High School Equivalency Diploma Accessibility Act. Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill into law June 9.

“I want to go to Disneyland now! I’m ecstatic, really ecstatic,” said Curtis Askew, member of St. Matthew United Methodist Church, Taylors, whose efforts were instrumental in helping the law get United Methodist support and, ultimately, South Carolina’s. “It showed that with persistence and information about the issue, you can get a lot done.”

The bill is designed to make taking the high school equivalency test fairer and more accessible for all people across the state. It requires 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. Prior to the law’s passage, the GED was only planning to offer a computer-based delivery mode, which advocates said disadvantaged a large number of South Carolinians who do not have access to technology, particularly those in the poverty-stricken portion of the state known as the Corridor of Shame. Now other companies, who have non-computer versions, will be permitted to offer the test.

The bill is directly related to a resolution unanimously passed at the S.C. UMC’s Annual Conference 2013, a Resolution Responding to the Proposed Changes to High School Equivalency Testing: A Rallying Cry for Action in S.C.

Askew and the Greenville District Connectional Ministries sponsored that resolution, which the S.C. UMC supported and referred to Connectional Ministries. The resolution called for the conference to advocate through Conference Connectional Ministries and its 12 DCMs for a more affordable and non-computer-based high school equivalency test, plus created a conference-wide task force chaired by Askew that will develop a plan for local churches to become high school equivalency test centers and offer preparation.

When Annual Conference ended last June, Askew and the task force immediately began advocating for change, talking first with community stakeholders and, ultimately, state legislators about sponsoring legislation. Advocates said a computer-only GED was a barrier for rural, poor and older South Carolinians, and fewer people achieving a high school diploma or equivalency would put the state at a disadvantage economically. 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.

Askew said it is tremendously heartening that what started as a “far-flung idea” turned into significant legislation for the people of this state. He said the idea began in a United Methodist Men’s group meeting about how to get outside the walls of the church to help the community’s youth. Then the men started brainstorming: What if their church could be a GED testing center? What if they partnered with other UMCs? Why stop at the Greenville District? Why not involve UMCs across the state? The rest of the steps—crafting a resolution for annual conference, getting legislative support, lobbying for passage—whizzed by in a blur of hard work, culminating in the law’s passage in June.

“It was something I spent a lot of time crafting, and to see language that started on my computer, to actually see pieces of that language embedded in the preamble of the law, is just surreal,” Askew said, laughing.

But he’s not resting with the law’s passage: “Getting the vote is one thing, but getting implementation is another.”

Next steps include making sure implementation of the alternative test is smooth and that people understand what options are available to them. Preparing and educating people about what the test provides is also critical. He and the task force will be hard at work on these items.

Askew credited the Rev. Kathy James, director of Connectional Ministries for the conference, for helping to generate significant interest in H4840. Askew said James sent out an email with information about the bill to people throughout state, encouraging them to call their legislators.

“That really helped,” Askew said.

James said she, too, finds passage of the law heartening because it shows the power of a body of people at work for God.

“In all my years of being in this Annual Conference, we have passed resolutions and they have been helpful, but it’s not always easy to see the impact of those resolutions,” James said. “But in this instance, because a United Methodist layperson took that resolution into the paws of the government, we were able to see that the voice of The United Methodist Church in South Carolina can carry weight and impact the lives of people for good.”

H4840 garnered 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).

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