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The State of South Carolina -vs- Education State Struggles to Overcome Legacy of Indifference “T hank God for Mississippi.” 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 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. 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 16 cover story By Ron Aiken “Ours is a government of the people or it is a profession of damnable falsehoods … If you would build up Southern power, you must educate ... the common people.” — S.C. Rep. J. W. Tucker, 1853 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. A Legacy of Indifference “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 P ublic 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. In the early to mid-19th century, Bud Ferillo the idea of educating the poor fell in and out of favor — mostly out — and even many poor whites balked at the notion of “pauper schools,” often keeping their children home because they were needed in the fields. “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, 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 May 13-19, 2009 |

The State of SC vs Education

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