Signs slamming ruling going up on highways

School funding lawsuit fallout

Beginning Monday, motorists who travel along I-95 will pass a not-so-subtle message about one image of South Carolina schools.

Stark, black-and-white signs will appear next week on two billboards near the Interstates 95 and 26 interchange. They will "welcome" travelers to the "home of 'minimally adequate education.' "

The boards will go up on Monday, five days after Judge Thomas Cooper denied both the state and the school districts' requests to reconsider his ruling in the school-funding lawsuit.

Cooper affirmed an earlier decision in which he found the state meets its legal obligations to provide each child with an opportunity to receive a "minimally adequate education," a phrase the state Supreme Court coined when it interpreted the state constitution's education clause.

The billboards, which will be up for 30 days, are being paid for by Education First, a coalition of public educators and their supporters who want to keep pressure on public-policymakers to resolve their complaints about inadequate funding public schools in rural districts.

Many of those districts are along I-95, which inspired Columbia public-relations executive Bud Ferillo to call his documentary portraying woeful working and learning conditions in schools in the eastern half of the state the "Corridor of Shame."

Ferillo said the idea for the billboards grew out frustration that the 2007 Legislature did little to infuse extra money into public schools for the upcoming academic year, especially 36 districts suing the state for greater annual aid.

State agencies responsible for promoting a positive public image for the state and recruiting businesses and industry to locate in South Carolina declined to offer a reaction to the billboard campaign.

Joel Sawyer, Gov. Mark Sanford's chief spokesman, said, "These are the same folks who agree with the status quo in education and who agree with not giving parents and students more options for school choice.

"They're devoting energy to billboards rather than substantive education reforms," Sawyer said.

Ferillo said Cooper's recent decision had no impact on the campaign.

"If anything, this is something that needs to be said publicly even more so," he said.

The Education First billboards, which cost about $4,000 to rent, also call on those who might see them to support efforts to "fund education equity now!"

Retired Columbia businessman Rhett Jackson pushed to get the billboard message campaign under way.

"I hope we can change the whole concept in South Carolina, that we need to achieve 'maximum education' for all our kids. We need to get rid of this mind-set that a 'minimum education' is enough."

Jackson and Lonnie Randolph, who co-chair the Education First steering committee, issued a statement declaring, "We hope these billboards on I-95 serve as a wake-up call to all those South Carolinians who rely upon education for personal achievement and community progress."

One billboard will be along I-95 in Clarendon 3, where Mary Rice-Crenshaw has been superintendent for three years.

"I like the initiative. It's needed," Rice-Crenshaw said. "I just wish they had started with 'fund education equity now.' I just think someone drives by and looks at the first part of the sign and may think that's what we have."

According to statistics compiled by the state Department of Transportation, about 17,000 motorists traverse I-95 daily near the Clarendon County billboard location. About 11,000 drivers travel along the section of the highway in Dorchester County, where the other sign will be visible near Exit 77.

Steve Laird, superintendent of the Lakeview schools in Dillon 1, said, "I think that we need a campaign like this. We need to wake some folks up.

"There are children who are not receiving the education they ought to and it's a funding issue," said Laird, who signed on as plaintiff when the funding lawsuit was filed in 1993.

Rick Reames, who heads the Pee Dee Education Center in Florence, an advocacy organization made up of many of the plaintiff districts, was unaware of the campaign's thrust but said, "I welcome their support."

"It can be a big boost, particularly if some action comes later on. You are airing dirty laundry, but it's pretty much out there for everybody to see."

Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.