The Hechinger Report

OPINION: Many rural schools have been ‘minimally adequate’ for too long

I remember as a young reporter for The State newspaper in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, driving with a colleague in 1999 to the old Bishopville High School in rural Lee County.

The school was still in operation, despite having been condemned. (Its main lobby ceiling had collapsed in an incident that could have killed someone.) Some of the classroom windows were missing panes of glass, open to the wind.

I returned to the car after the visit, profoundly startled by this and other evidence of chronic neglect. My colleague literally wept.

As South Carolina lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster begin to consider the first real overhaul of the state’s school-funding system in decades, some rural schools continue to lag behind those in more populous and affluent areas of the state. South Carolina’s debate will be important to monitor as other states ponder similar school-funding changes to provide greater equity for rural and under-resourced schools.

Related: Not many of South Carolina’s African-American high school grads attend its flagship campus

Things have improved in Lee County since my 1999 trip. Bishopville High has been replaced with a sparkling new Lee County High School campus, visible from I-20, rising from an old cotton field about an hour’s drive from Columbia. But a nicer school building wasn’t enough to keep the school from being rated “below average” on the state’s recent report card.

Fortunately, there’s been other progress in some of the state’s rural schools, although it has been too spotty and incremental. I visited Colleton County High School in 2017 and was thoroughly impressed with students’ deep engagement in their courses, many of which were project-based as part of the New Tech Network. Former Gov. and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley later wrote a column on this school and Scott’s Branch High School in Clarendon County.

And it was in rural Clarendon County where I first spent time in 2004 to write about the still-segregated town where the Brown v. Board of Education cases actually began. I had not learned of this fascinating portion of our state’s history until after graduating from the University of South Carolina.

Scott’s Branch High, in the little town of Summerton, had seen some noticeable improvements by 2017 as it adopted some of the same strategies as Colleton County High. But the school recently saw its state report card rating tumble.

Related: ‘We’ve failed them’: How South Carolina education policy hurts ‘Dreamers’ — and costs taxpayers

Summerton’s children are so gifted and capable, like every child, but face many obstacles. In fact, 64 years after the Brown decision, built in large part on the Briggs v. Elliott case from that very community, no white children at all attended Scott’s Branch on my last visit. White parents still prefer Clarendon Hall, one of many rural private schools in the South opened in the desegregation era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This means dual school systems still operate today in a town of fewer than 1,000 people.

Children in South Carolina deserve much better, especially those in less-privileged communities. But this is the way it’s always been for many rural children of color.

Even for me, a rural white child from a middle-class family, my school’s expectations were low. My alma mater, Wren High School, now one of South Carolina’s highest-rated schools, serving mostly suburban students outside Greenville, it was a more rural place in the 1980s.

A guidance counselor advised my best friend and me against college, urging us to consider two-year technical programs. While these can be a great option for many, especially today, we needed something different. Later, I became a professional writer. My friend, Scott Poole, earned a Ph.D., recently published his seventh book and is a history professor at the College of Charleston.

Related:  National test scores reveal a decade of educational stagnation

Rural school districts sued the state for more resources in the late 1990s and finally won their case in 2015. Then the state Supreme Court tipped from moderate to conservative, overturning its own decision, saying the court had overstepped its powers.

Give me a break. The court already had established that many rural districts in the state were “educational ghettos.” Earlier, then-Chief Justice Ernest Finney had let the case stand, finding the state constitution rather mute on schools but still requiring the state to provide at least a “minimally adequate” education.

Former Gov. Nikki Haley, who knew better because she grew up in tiny Denmark, South Carolina, where the schools historically have been segregated and where they still struggle mightily, fought those rural districts tooth and nail, as did Gov. Mark Sanford before her.

Today, the average investment in each rural student in South Carolina is about $5,200. Some states spend more than double that amount on each rural student’s instruction. (See page 90 of this 2017 report by the Rural School and Community Trust, where I serve on the board.) Money isn’t everything, but it often leads to higher student achievement, greater support services, and more stable and higher-quality talent pools of teachers and principals.

South Carolina isn’t alone in these challenges, but The Post and Courier in Charleston detailed in an outstanding recent series the challenges for many rural schools in my home state. The newspaper also showed that many other Southern states have long-established, nonpartisan organizations that help build consensus for improving schools. Last year, a network of those organizations collaborated on a regional blueprint for progress.

I still dream of a Palmetto State where all communities thrive, can own their troubled histories, and build on their strong sense of place. Cruelly, many of the state’s students still only have a minimally adequate education. This reality isn’t adequate or even humane for anyone. Maybe it’s finally time for a change.

This story about rural education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Alan Richard, a national education writer who contributes occasionally to The Hechinger Report, serves on the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. He lives in Atlanta.