Yet again, South Carolina’s policymakers seem stuck in the design phase of public school policy. This latest stumble extends over two decades across at least three court decisions, variously known as the Abbeville v South Carolina case and the funding case, about equity, adequacy and quality in S.C. public schools.
The problem lies in fundamental historical facts of South Carolina’s persisting indecision over whether the state ought to offer a public system of schools to all students. That vacillation stems from ongoing cultural issues with race, poverty and rural-urban tensions.
The latest order from the state Supreme Court was a split decision that left the details of policy making to the General Assembly, a common response from a number of states’ supreme courts across nearly three decades. Despite this traditional and conservative approach the lawsuit, another legal squabble broke out instead of a useful debate about how to establish a public school system throughout the state.
Tragically, South Carolina cannot find a satisfactory answer to the question of who ought to govern the public school system. Stretching from its pre-Revolutionary War history well into the Civil Rights era, South Carolina has opted to let local officials govern schools. The state chose weak oversight despite testimony and evidence that exposes differences in quality, if not outright corruption, that such a hands-off approach encourages. Unless the policy for a system of public schools includes a checks-and-balances design between state and local choices, students will be condemned to the quality of education that their locale can afford or merely prefers, no matter how low that might be.
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This problem is exacerbated by race, poverty and rurality, which connect geographically. Poverty is higher in rural areas. Minority-majority populations fan across rural areas rather than show up as concentrations only in cities. Where schools fail, they frequently show gaps based on both race and poverty with associated gaps in health and funding infrastructure. South Carolina’s historically low-performing schools are located in rural, high-poverty areas.
In short, race, poverty and rurality matter in whether a student can get a good education. Now, South Carolina has to decide how to design a robust public education infrastructure, with checks and balances, addressing geography, poverty and race.
Jane Clark Lindle
Eugene T. Moore Distinguished Professor
of Educational Leadership