|The State of South Carolina -vs- Education|
State Struggles to Overcome Legacy of Indifference
For decades, that refrain has echoed across the Palmetto State, referring to the widely held belief that when it comes to rankings for education (or most anything else), South Carolina generally is 49th to Mississippi’s 50th.
That the sentiment is largely inaccurate today hardly matters anymore; it’s become so ingrained in how South Carolinians see themselves — doomed to pay the price for a lack of commitment to public education — that it carries with it an implicit acceptance of failure and a resignation that nothing can be done to fix it.
There is no question that many South Carolina schools are failing, as the exceptional 2005 documentary The Corridor of Shame detailed in depth. More recently, rankings by neighborhoodscout.com earlier this year listed 10 of the nation’s 20 worst schools as South Carolina products. But that’s only half the conversation — besides having some of the worst schools in the country, South Carolina also has some of the nation’s best, most of which are located in tax-rich districts in Charleston, the Upstate and in Columbia.
Student Teessance Mills is overcome with joy as she sees the new school desks in her classroom at JV Martin Junior High School on May 4th in Dillon, South Carolina. “It’s great, we love it!” she said. Photo by C. Aluka Berry/The State/MCT
The state’s main problem, one that has existed since the state’s first free public schools were established around 1710, is how to close the longstanding gaps in funding and achievement between rich and poor areas of the state. It’s a fight taking place at the State House now against a dire financial backdrop: a pro-voucher governor withholding millions in federal funds designated to improve public education; some $300 million in cuts to public education because of the nation’s poor economy and a vulnerable state tax system; and legislation that allows districts to skirt the requirements of former Gov. Dick Riley’s Education Improvement Act, a move that has enabled teacher furloughs, larger class sizes and other measures.
In the midst of today’s troubles, a group of impassioned legislators, educators and activists are lining up to try to force the state to take a longer-term view. They seek to amend the state’s constitutional language from what a 1999 state Supreme Court decision defined as a “minimally adequate” standard of education to a “high quality” one and renew focus on equitable funding and equal opportunities for all the state’s students. The fight is one that will likely bleed into the next legislative session as the question of whether the state will accept federal stimulus funds hangs like a Damoclean sword over teachers, administrators and students statewide.
“There is scarcely a state in the Union in which so great apathy exists on the subject of the education of the people.” — Remarks from a concerned citizen’s group, 1846
Public education in South Carolina has faced an uphill battle from its inception. First, colonists from England brought with them the ingrained notion that public education was fundamentally a service for the poor and that affluent citizens were obligated to educate their children privately through tutors, local church schools or by sending them abroad.
“We had a better standard of education in the Reconstruction constitution [than now],” says Bud Ferillo, whose firm produced Corridor of Shame and who operates the web site goodbyeminimallyadequate.com, which collects signatures to aid in the fight to change the state constitution’s language. Ferrillo notes that the 1868 Reconstruction constitution “established the state’s first public education system, created the post of the state superintendent of education and directed the state to ‘educate all the children of all the people.’”
But when Reconstruction ended, so did the commitment to public education.
“When Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s constitutional convention met in 1895, it struck that noble value [to educate all the children of all the people] and kept only the requirement of the state to maintain a system of free public education,” Ferrillo says. “Then subsequent legislatures began to appropriate hugely disproportionate funds for white schools over black schools, reaching $30 to $1 by the 1920s. Why? Originally to protect the white minority from the power of an educated black majority.”
By the turn of the century, South Carolina’s public schools were little better than they had been the previous 50 years, with a lack of qualified teachers and facilities, especially in rural areas — and even more so in black schools.
“The Negro schoolhouses are miserable beyond description,” said W.K. Tate, South Carolina’s first elementary rural school supervisor, in 1911. “Most of the teachers are absolutely untrained and have been given certificates by the county board not because they have passed the examination, but because it is necessary to have some kind of a Negro teacher. Among the Negro schools I visited, I have found only one in which the highest class has known the multiplication table.”
Spending per pupil reflected the gap between black and white. In 1913-14, the state expenditure per white student was $14.94 compared to $1.86 for black students, according to The History of South Carolina Schools: A Tragic Tale, edited by Virginia Ward.
Teacher pay was similarly skewed.
Renewed efforts to improve the quality of public education came as the result of the two World Wars, which revealed South Carolina’s weak education system when it sent more illiterate recruits to World War I than any state in the country and had more WWII recruits rejected for educational deficiencies than any state except Alabama.
In 1948, a report prepared by the National Peabody Commission found the state’s most glaring need to be the financial imbalances between school districts, and recommended a school finance equalization program. But like many recommendations through the years, it went largely unheeded, and by 1949, the state was spending $111 per white pupil and $50 per black pupil. Additionally, state spending on transportation — critical in rural areas — was $2.4 million for whites and $184,000 for blacks.
While black schools did benefit from Gov. James Burns’ successful effort in 1951 to raise the sales tax by 3 percent to improve black schools, the motive behind the measure was overtly racial: Byrnes wanted the state to comply with the national “separate but equal” standard established by Plessy v. Ferguson.
Once that ruling was overturned by Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 and the federal government began enforcing desegregation in the South, progress stalled as “white flight” began in earnest, with an explosion in the number of private, mostly white schools statewide.
The next time the achievement and funding gap was addressed didn’t come until 1977 with the passage of the Education Finance Act, which guaranteed tax-poor districts more state dollars but still required them to pay a local share based on property wealth — a move that would lead more than 15 years later to the landmark case of Abbeville v. The State of South Carolina, which, filed in 1993, is still awaiting judgment by the S.C. Supreme Court.
It wasn’t until 1984’s Education Improvement Act, spearheaded by Riley, that the notion of improving education from the bottom up by adding 1 cent to the state sales tax to fund innovative programs over and above what school districts already receive from the state took root.
“The whole idea in 1983 was to have people outside the government leaders around the state see what was working and what wasn’t to fund those that were making a difference and eliminate those that weren’t,” says Riley, who later became the U.S. Secretary for Education under former president Bill Clinton. “I think that was a very good concept in my judgment, we got it passed and the people supported it in a very strong way.”
Twenty years removed from the EIA, however, the state of South Carolina finds itself back in a debate about public school funding, a debate not only about how to right the state’s historical wrongs but also about the future of public education itself — an argument that still evokes the specter of the politics of race.
“There’s totally no way to separate class and race [from education],” says South Carolina Secretary of Education Jim Rex, who won the closest election in state history in 2006 when he defeated Republican challenger Karen Floyd, a proponent of school vouchers and Sanford supporter. “We have a history that’s kept us more divided than we’ve needed to be, and when you look now at the money poured in from out of state to create a dual system here, you can still see class and race embedded in those.
“I don’t think South Carolinian’s DNA is any different from people in Georgia or North
“We just don’t have that generational history of people who have done well in formal school settings, so we don’t always understand the value.”
“I’d say that anyone who loves this state and who believes in education and the future would not be satisfied with a ‘minimally adequate’ education; that’s not what our future should be about.” — Former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley
When a total of 40 rural school districts combined to sue the State of South Carolina in 1993, the grounds were whether or not the state was required to provide an “adequate” education to its students. South Carolina’s Third Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper initially dismissed the case, and by 1998 the case had reached the state Supreme Court on appeal.
In 1999, the Court finally interpreted the state’s direction to provide a “free” education as meaning “at least a minimally adequate education” in which 12 years of school would produce citizens who could read, write, do simple math and be employable.
The Supreme Court then returned the case to Cooper for trial and in 2004 the case lasted some 103 days, making it the longest trial in state history. After a year of deliberation, Cooper ruled in December 2005 that while the state did not provide a minimally adequate education in early childhood education, it did meet the minimally adequate standard for grades K-12, which Cooper further defined as “the least thing that can be done.”
In 2006, both sides filed motions to reconsider. In 2007, Cooper dismissed both sides’ motions. That same year, the plaintiffs (now reduced to 36 districts due to consolidation) appealed their case back to the state Supreme Court, where it still awaits an opinion, meaning that today those two definitions still stand as the sole measure of what the state of South Carolina promises its children.
Leading the charge to change the wording of the state constitution — after all, the state Legislature doesn’t have to wait on the Supreme Court’s ruling to amend the constitution — are Sens. John Matthews (D-Charleston) and Phil Leventis (D-Sumter), whose bill, S.99, would change the “free” designation to include a “high quality” education, a move supporters say has worked in other states.
“I think it’s critical to change the language because our constitution is our mission statement,” says Matthews, a retired elementary school principal. “Changing to a ‘high quality’ education statement, that is measurable and will be a clear message to the public that we take education seriously.”
Whether or not progress gets made on changing the constitution this session, there’s no question that the “minimally adequate” stipulation has made the state an educational laughing stock.
“If you had a life-threatening injury, would you want a ‘minimally adequate’ surgeon?” asks Tom Truitt, a former superintendent of Florence District 1 from 1987 to 1998. Truitt’s district was one of the original plaintiffs in the Abbeville case. Truitt went on to serve as executive director of the Pee Dee Education Center from 1998 to 2005 and has written a book about the case called Going up the River of Shame: The Struggle for Education Justice in South Carolina.
“I understand the state’s legal position, but it’s an embarrassment that all our state wants to do for its children is literally the least that can be done.”
Hayes Mizzell, the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the National Staff Development Council, is a longtime contributor of op-ed pieces on educational issues, including desegregation and school-finance reform. He says a lack of consistent leadership and general public apathy have led to the situation South Carolina currently is in.
“We really have a kind of bigger systemic issue that underlies all of this,” Mizell says. “We have a culture in South Carolina of low expectations and wishful thinking, which is a pretty toxic combination.
“It means we aren’t going to try too hard and kind of hope that by nibbling around the margins that things somehow will work out. And yet if there’s a state in the country that should know what that gets you, it’s South Carolina.”
What South Carolina has gotten is hordes of negative national publicity thanks in part to Ferillo’s compelling Corridor of Shame video, the impact of which carried all the way to the White House as President Barack Obama repeatedly made mention of the “little girl from Dillon” going to the crumbling schoolhouse in his campaign speeches.
“We wanted the documentary to have a powerful impact, but none of us ever dreamed of what has happened,” Ferillo says. “We estimate that over a million South Carolinians have seen it over the past four years.”
Ferillo says his friend John Rainey first suggested doing a documentary on the Abbeville court case “as a means of educating people across the state about the consequences of neglecting our rural schools; they pull down the state’s educational rankings, create unacceptable social decline and signal the death of the economies of rural communities.”
Just last week, a Chicago businessman donated some $250,000 worth of new furniture and supplies to Dillon’s J.V. Martin Junior High School, the school of eighth grader Ty’sheoma Bethea, whose letter to Congress urging them to support school construction with stimulus funds earned her a seat beside Michelle Obama at the president’s address to Congress in February.
The documentary’s impact and subsequent public attention to the plight of rural school districts comes at a moment in history in which the state’s own governor and his out-of-state financial backers are doing everything in their power to direct funding away from struggling public schools and into those same private schools set up some 40 years ago specifically to exclude the students the state’s economy has left behind.
Add to that pre-existing opposition Sanford’s own niche ideology — which forbids him from accepting the very stimulus dollars for education that Bethea’s letter helped secure — and what you have is a volatile standoff that carries significant immediate consequences to school districts statewide as well as political consequences for the next election cycle.
“[Sanford] is not providing, in my judgment, good, positive leadership for public schools,” Riley says. “In fact, he’s providing just the opposite in pushing tax credits, which is another way to shift public dollars to private schools. I support quality private schools, but I don’t think they should be publicly funded to the detriment of public education.”
As far as Rex is concerned, Sanford’s antagonistic stance toward public education is maddening, to say the least.
“[Sanford] is a tremendous liability for us right now,” Rex says. “I have no doubt that as a state we’ll make up the lost ground in the long run, but our governor’s position on public education has hurt us in ways I don’t think most people understand.”
“As a people, we cannot go back to the rice fields, the farmlands and the textile fields of our past. We must invest in human capital through a new commitment to high quality education or face the harsh reality of an endless cycle of poverty, underachievement and a diminished quality of life.” — Bud Ferillo
There is little question that the largest issue facing public education in the future is the gap between tax-rich and tax-poor districts.
“When I was born, the quality of education depended on the color of your skin,” Matthews says. “Now, it depends on where you live.”
When it comes to real, practical solutions, the answers range from changes in leadership to broad-based tax reform to an awakening on the part of South Carolinians to the critical importance of public education.
“We absolutely need to look at how we raise revenue and need comprehensive tax reform so we can allocate funds fairly and get away from these disparities that exist,” Rex says.
“While I think the fight to change the state constitution’s language is really important, I don’t think victory or defeat will be decided by the issue.
“I was down in Dillon for the dedication of furniture, and I told the group there that I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt grateful and thankful, but one of the things the owner of the company told me was that when he came down to J.V. Martin and saw the conditions, there was just no way he could walk away.
“That’s sad that we need someone from Illinois to help the children in our state because he couldn’t walk away. For how many decades and generations have we walked away? We go back to our nice public schools or sheltered private ones and have neglected generations of our citizens. If we don’t correct this for moral or ethical reasons, we should realize we need to do it for practical reasons; we won’t have the state we want unless we recognize the obligations we have to these children.
“I’ve never once found an example of a business looking to locate in South Carolina ever asking ‘How good are the private schools?’ They worry about the public schools because that’s their workforce and that’s their quality of life.”
For Mizell, the Dillon gift also demonstrated a fundamental problem with the state’s attitude toward rural schools.
“We have this whole geographical swath of the state that has had a very tough time, and it’s a larger economic issue and not just an educational one,” Mizell says. “I’m not sure we’ve ever decided that these places are worth focusing on, and we’ll never move forward without major investment. We can’t expect the success of the schools in our metro regions to bring them along from the rear.”
Ferillo says there are steps the state could take right now without having to wait on the federal stimulus money or a change in the state constitution.
“Right now … the Legislature could revise the way our school system is funded,” Ferillo says. “It could plus up funding for schools with heavy poverty populations. It could equalize teacher salaries across the state, like they pay highway patrolmen and prison guards. They could create a fund to replace or renovate the worst school buildings.
“In short, they could begin to do now what history, if not justice, will make them do sooner or later.”
Truitt, with his background in Pee Dee academics, couldn’t agree more with Ferillo’s assessment.
“The total state tax structure needs to be redone, and there is a commission looking at that now,” Truitt says. “You need educational funding that is stable, fair and equitable. Tax cuts have been driving everything, and nobody likes to pay taxes and there probably is a lot of waste in government, including education, but you can’t attack it piecemeal like we’ve done and expect different results.”
Rex says in order for change to take place at the level it needs to, South Carolina needs an overhaul in its perception of and funding for public education that recognizes the very real consequences of doing nothing.
“Incremental improvements don’t work,” Rex says. “A state like ours needs a competitive advantage over other states, and to do that we need a new, 21st-century public school system.
“The Education Improvement Act helped, but that was 20 years ago. We need to re-think what public education means, and for me that means giving students choices within their public schools, giving them options that fit their academic interests or abilities like Montessori schools, magnet schools, single-gender education and the like.
“Without that kind of change and vision, education in South Carolina will continue to be a case of the haves and the have-nots, and in this day and age that simply should not be acceptable.”
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