Richard Shiro, Associated Press
In this Aug. 26, 2013, file photo, South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley announces her candidacy for a second term in Greenville, S.C.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gov. Nikki Haley's proposal to improve public schools by focusing on poor, rural students — and to start a multi-year effort with a $160 million investment — stunned educators and legislators of both parties, who applaud what they consider her about-face on education.

Her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, criticized her announcement last week as a convenient, election-year metamorphosis, following her proposed budget cuts and education vetoes. In the legislative session that kicks off Tuesday, he'll push his own education plan to expand access to 4-year-old kindergarten and raise teachers' salaries.

Educators welcome a pro-public-schools debate over both of their ideas.

"I'm excited about it. I hope this is going to get a positive discussion going," said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "I do think the governor is sincere in the initiatives she laid out."

Absent from Haley's plan was any mention of vouchers or tax credits for private education.

The idea of using tax policy to help parents send their child to private schools has dominated the education debate in South Carolina since former Gov. Mark Sanford laid out his first proposal in 2004. Since then, Republicans who voted against the idea have been targeted in mudslinging primaries fueled by out-of-state money. After a decade of fighting, the Legislature passed its first, limited private-school choice program last year specifically for special-needs students.

Four years ago, Haley ran on private school choice. Education advocates say they hope her new approach finally leads the debate beyond that single issue.

"It was tremendously damaging to the morale of educators because Gov. Sanford's approach was to talk about all the negatives of education and never once talk about the good things," said Molly Spearman, director of the state's Association of School Administrators. "And when you're a teacher and principal working in schools across the state, you take it personally. It has been tremendously demoralizing."

Haley recognized that in her speech Wednesday, saying she learned much from her discussions with teachers over the past year.

"We have reduced the competence of our teachers so much because all we do is talk about the problems of education," Haley said in unveiling her plan at a West Columbia elementary school. "The best thing we have in South Carolina is our teachers, but we have to strengthen them. We have to support them."

Haley's proposal includes spending $30 million on additional reading coaches in elementary schools, $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities — distributed based on schools' poverty ratings — and an additional $97 million on children who live in poverty. The plan also puts more money toward summer reading camps, teacher training in reading and technology, charter schools and adult education classes. A detailed breakdown is expected Monday as she releases her executive budget proposal for 2014-15.

Haley said her plan spends 20 percent more on children who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals as well as 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn't English.

Democrats in the Statehouse have long advocated for such a weighting as a way to help the neediest students succeed.

"I welcome the governor to the club," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. Ordinarily one of Haley's chief critics, Hutto said he invites Haley to take the lead in pushing the idea through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The chairman of the House budget-writing committee, Rep. Brian White, said Haley's plan faces a good chance of passing simply because of the way it was put together. Last week's unveiling followed about 20 meetings Haley had last year with teachers, administrators, business leaders, university officials, and legislators of both parties.

"I do applaud her for actually taking the initiative and getting something started," said White, R-Anderson.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said it will be much easier for House Republicans to support putting more money in public education without a Republican governor fighting them on it.

Despite the last few years' education increases, the state still expects to spend $140 million less on K-12 education this year compared to the high in 2007-08, before the Great Recession forced budget cuts across state government, according to a report by the Office of State Budget.

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On the campaign trail in 2010, Haley insisted she could improve education without giving public schools any additional money. Her first executive budget proposal in 2012 actually reduced overall spending on K-12 by $80 million. When legislators didn't follow her suggestions, and instead increased money for education, she traveled the state to bash Republicans for not cutting corporate and personal income taxes. Her vetoes that year included money for teacher pay raises, which the Legislature overrode.

"To have her now say more money is what we need to do to help public education will give the caucus members who are hesitant to go against the governor's position cover to maybe support the rest of us," said Bannister, R-Greenville.

Haley said no tax increase is needed for her plan and no district would get less money. The bulk of the additional money for education would come from projected increases in state tax collections.