Valerie Williams remembers as a child being distracted by raindrops falling from the ceiling of the classroom in her Denmark elementary school.
Today, more than two decades later, the 1950s-era elementary school still has a leaky roof. Its boiler overheats classrooms in winter. And, in the summer, air-conditioning window units buzz in classrooms while the tar-patched roof melts, sending black tar oozing earthward over the awnings.
“When is it going to change?” said the 36-year-old Williams, whose three daughters — ages 17, 15 and 9 — attend the district’s schools.
Despite promises to improve public education for all students, South Carolina’s GOP-controlled state government has not addressed the disparities between poor school districts – almost all in black communities and in Democratic areas of the state – and wealthy districts – most in white Republican communities – that have been decades in the making.
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This year, state lawmakers agreed to spend $430 million more in general fund dollars on education than nine years ago, before the Great Recession. But that 18 percent growth – most in this year’s budget – is not a windfall of new spending. Instead, state spending is only slightly higher – in inflation-adjusted dollars – than nine years ago. Those dollars go to educate 6 percent more students than before the recession.
At Gov. Nikki Haley’s encouragement, lawmakers have spent more in recent years on reading coaches, technology and students in poverty. But this year, legislators failed to pass Haley’s proposal – the first of its kind in nearly two decades – to spend state money to help poor districts build and renovate schools. For decades, districts have had to raise money locally to upgrade facilities – leaving wealthier districts with strong tax bases with a huge advantage in facilities over poorer ones.
Of four new education laws passed this year, two call for studies and another one calls for the S.C. Department of Education to continue an existing program. The fourth new law sets higher achievement standards for students, but does not include any new state money to help them reach those goals.
S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said she plans to use the new law – requiring high-school graduates to be ready for 21st century jobs or educations – to hold state leaders’ “feet to the fire.”
“We’re breaking the law in South Carolina because we said that every student has to be prepared,” she said.
Spearman also says the state’s system for funding public education – one that leaves some districts receiving far more money per student – needs an overhaul.
A solution should include sharing taxes raised when the state lures major corporations to the state with tax breaks paid for by all taxpayers, Spearman said. All school districts should benefit, not just the district where the company locates.
“All of South Carolina supports when incentives are given (to new companies), so we’ve got to look at that,” said the Republican. “Otherwise, the disparity is going to continue to widen.”
Spearman also said rural school districts need to look at consolidating or sharing services.
In an interview Monday with The State, Gov. Nikki Haley would not endorse creating a statewide approach to funding schools. Instead, the Lexington Republican said she wants to focus spending on programs that are needed, and work to ensure school districts are spending money wisely and consolidating resources when possible.
Haley also touted recent increases in spending on students in poverty as “one of the best things we could have done” to make school funding more equitable.
Representatives of the districts that sued the state two decades ago say the recent changes, while welcome, barely scrape the surface of the problem.
The changes in funding amount to a tweak that did nothing to untangle the web of federal, state and local tax dollars that leaves some school districts receiving much more money than others, critics say. The differences in what school districts receive is big – as much as $18,507 a student in the Fairfield School District and as little as $7,546 a student in Dillon 3.
Meanwhile, the added money for reading coaches and technology in poor school systems – touted by Haley as “transformational” – has been too little, critics say.
Bamberg 2, for example, received enough added money to hire one reading coach for its roughly 650 students – an addition Superintendent Thelma Sojourner said the district appreciates. The district, one of the poor school systems that sued the state, also spent about $37,000 over two years on technology, including computers and technical assistance for staff, according to a state education oversight agency.
Bolder reforms are in order, advocates of the state’s poor, rural students say.
“Have they (legislators) passed any reforms this year?” Clarendon 2 Superintendent John Tindal asked rhetorically.
“As a member of the plaintiff districts, I would have liked to have seen a more expeditious approach to enacting some things that could help us right away,” said Tindal, adding his district needs help recruiting and retaining teachers.
Slow start to reforms
Rural S.C. school districts have waited a long time for long-term solutions.
Two years ago, the S.C. Supreme Court issued a sweeping condemnation of the public school system, ruling it has failed to provide all children with the quality education guaranteed by the state Constitution, especially children in poor, rural districts.
Four new education laws passed the Legislature this year, but they did not go far enough, according to the school districts that sued.
The laws were gleaned from dozens of recommendations that a S.C. House panel of lawmakers, business leaders and school district representatives developed over a year of meetings.
One new law sets higher standards for the skills that every S.C. high-school graduate must have to succeed in college, and in technology and manufacturing jobs – positions employers say they are having a hard time filling.
That law, however, does not require lawmakers to give enough money to school districts to ensure they can to meet the new standards, the districts that sued the state have said.
Another new law requires the S.C. Department of Education to start doing something it already was doing before the law was passed – increasing the technical assistance it gives to struggling school districts.
The other two new laws call for studies to identify obsolete education laws and a survey of college students to see what would attract them to teach in rural communities.
The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement at Winthrop University has been surveying school districts for years about why S.C. teachers leave their jobs, the districts that sued the state noted in a memo to the court.
Teachers leave their jobs because of low pay and working conditions, the center’s director Jane Turner said.
Another college-student survey “can’t hurt,” but funding schools more equitably would help, Turner said.
“I just don’t see how anybody could argue that our funding system isn’t in serious need of review. Just the fact that we have districts out there with crumbling buildings and holes in the ceiling and that kind of thing, obviously something isn’t working.”
Rebuilding S.C. schools
The leaders of the S.C. House and Senate wrote to the Supreme Court that the legislation they passed this year and still are weighing builds on three decades of legislative efforts to improve public education.
Since the 1993 lawsuit, the state has adopted a free 4-year-old kindergarten for students in poverty and an education lottery that pays for college scholarships and some K-12 needs.
In January, Haley also asked lawmakers to approve borrowing up to $200 million a year to send to districts to help renovate and build new schools.
The state last chipped in for school facilities in 1999, when Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges and lawmakers agreed to borrow $750 million for the state’s more than 80 school districts, averaging about $9 million a district.
Haley’s proposal was vague and did not pass. However, lawmakers have vowed to take it up in January, during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, the state is doing another study, surveying the building needs of districts.
Still up for debate is whether schools will have to repay the money they get for building projects. How much money would be available for districts would depend on how much money lawmakers agree to spend.
Without help from the state, S.C. school districts have tried to pay their own way to better buildings.
Since 1999, voters across the state have approved almost $7 billion in borrowing to help upgrade school facilities and technology, according to the S.C. School Boards Association.
However, during that same period, other districts saw nearly $2 billion in proposals fail at the ballot box.
‘Running on borrowed time’
In Abbeville, one of the school districts that sued the state, the district’s students generally outperform students in similar districts and statewide.
But facilities have not changed much in years.
“We’re kind of running on borrowed time in our facilities, and I’m worried that we could have something break tomorrow that we wouldn’t be able to fix,” said Superintendent Jonathan Phipps.
With two high schools built in the 1950s, Abbeville School District leaders are studying what it would cost to upgrade air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems at those facilities. The costs could reach $18 million or more, Phipps said.
Getting older buildings up to newer building and safety codes means higher costs, he added.
Phipps said, for example, his district wanted to add a culinary program to its cosmetology and building construction classes – its career courses.
But the kitchen at Dixie High School needed a lot of work. “The easiest way to say it is that area was condemned,” he said.
Phipps said the district found about $200,000 to upgrade the kitchen, but the costs to bring it up to code were much higher than they would have been in a newer building.
“It is so unfair that the geographic location of where our kids are determines the facilities they have,” he said.
Funding is key, schools chief says
To level the playing field for students, the state should adopt a statewide approach to funding public education, S.C. schools chief Spearman said.
But convincing lawmakers to do that will be difficult, she said. The idea is not new and will be difficult to pass through the Legislature.
“It’s going to require some legislators voting … against revenue staying in their own communities,” Spearman said, a former state representative.
“That’s a difficult thing for legislators to do. You try to do what’s best for your constituents.” But, she added, “you are a legislator for the whole state of South Carolina. We’ll see if we can get there.”
Rural districts also must be willing to compromise by consolidating operations or sharing resources, she said.
But lawmakers also must commit the money necessary to give all students a chance at success, she said, noting the new state law requiring that every S.C. student graduate ready to succeed in college or a career.
Even as that law passed, the Education Department already was preparing to allow some students to continue taking standardized tests using pencil and paper because those students do not know how to use a computer.
The problem highlights the varying access S.C. students have to technology and computer courses, Spearman said, adding the disparities have “got to change.”
Students see the disparities
Some S.C. students have noticed their schools have less than others.
Those differences can be huge, a group of Swansea High School students in the Lexington 4 School District learned. The students formed a group, called Student Voice, to raise awareness about inequalities in education across the state.
During a recent visit to the State House, the students received a “canned answer” from legislators about why some districts have more money than others, said Dawn Sargent, the group’s adviser.
“They were told that the reason we cannot do equitable funding across the state is because they have constituents in wealthy school districts … who would be very angry if we equalized everything across the state,” Sargent said.
“I just remember saying, ‘Are you kidding? You just told my students that their wealthy constituents ... are more important than students who go to rural school districts.’ ... I was angered by that answer.”
The Swansea High students say they have a lot of pride in their school. But they wish it had more to offer, such as more than one foreign language: Spanish. High-school performances also take place on a small stage in the school’s cafeteria as guests watch from round lunchroom tables.
Located about 25 miles from Swansea High, River Bluff High School, also in Lexington County but in the affluent Lexington 1 School District, has a large performing arts center on campus. The high school also offers five foreign languages, including Spanish.
“If the state is going to say … these are the standards that everybody has to meet, then everybody in the state should have the same opportunities and resources,” said Leah Knight, a Swansea junior.
Lexington 4 voters will decide in November whether to approve borrowing $25 million to build a new performing arts center at Swansea High while also improving career and technology facilities, and some of the school’s ballfields and parking areas.
But recruiting and retaining talented teachers is Lexington 4’s biggest obstacle, especially when teachers can go to neighboring districts and make more money, Superintendent Linda Lavender said.
The state sets the minimum salaries that districts must pay to teachers, based on their years of experience and education. But some districts choose to pay more – giving them an advantage in recruiting and retaining quality teachers.
The state could help poorer districts compete with wealthier neighbors by focusing resources on the districts that need a boost, Lavender said.
“Being equitable does not mean being equal,” she added. “In a rural school district, in order to recruit and retain teachers, you’re probably going to have to pay more.”
‘She has missed out’
Williams’ daughter Za’Taveya Williams, a senior at Denmark-Olar High School in Bamberg 2, said she began noticing the differences between her school and others while traveling to other schools for sporting events.
“It made me feel like my school was very poor, and we weren’t getting the things we should have had like other schools,” said the basketball player and cheerleader, who also is on a student committee advising state lawmakers.
Za’Taveya says she wants more opportunities for her younger sisters and other youth in the Bamberg school district.
“I want more for them,” she said. “There are more opportunities out there, and I want them to be able to see that for themselves.”
Za’Taveya’s mother, Valerie, said she is overjoyed with her oldest daughter’s academic success. Still, she knows her oldest daughter “has missed out on some things.”
When Za’Taveya goes to college next year, “she’s going to have to study a bit harder than some of the other kids … just to maintain a great GPA (grade-point average), just to get the experience that she needs for that course and to help her with life,” her mother said.
In November, voters in Bamberg 2 will decide the fate of a $38 million school bond referendum that could improve the schools for Za’Taveya’s younger sisters.
The money would build a new school for kindergarten through eighth grade, moving students out of the 1950s-era elementary and middle schools, said Bamberg 2 Superintendent Sojourner while giving reporters a tour of the elementary school.
The playground there was mostly an open field with one cluster of faded plastic equipment in the corner. Boys played basketball in a gym without air conditioning. The gym’s bathrooms lacked dispensers for soap and toilet paper, and ceiling tiles slumped.
While she hopes the borrowing proposal will pass, Sojourner says she has fought the idea that her students – 94 percent living in poverty – cannot learn in the schools that she, too, attended.
Sojourner says she refuses to call her students “at risk” or utter the phrase “Corridor of Shame” – the title of a documentary about the state’s poorest, rural schools – now widely used to describe the state’s poorest, rural schools.
“When children get off the bus and come into our buildings, they should have the opportunity to be provided the same education as a child who enters any building in the state of South Carolina,” Sojourner said of her district’s students, who performed better than students in similar districts on academic tests last year but still lagged behind students statewide.
“Our economic status – that doesn’t tell us who we are. We are here to provide an education for our children.”