Bud Ferillo has crusaded for 20 years to improve conditions in South Carolina’s poorest schools.
His passion earned him the Travelstead Award on Monday from the University of South Carolina.
Ferillo’s efforts include a documentary and photo exhibit on the “Corridor of Shame,” about the dismal condition of public schools along the I-95 corridor through South Carolina.
His push for more state aid in those classrooms continues, as the state Supreme Court just this week heard arguments in a legal challenge that could open the way for his goal to be met.
Ferillo is a spokesman for the Children’s Law Center at USC and operates a private public relations practice. Before that, he was a top aide in the lieutenant governor’s office and for legislative leaders.
The Travelstead Award, given every two years, is named for a former USC educator who supported racial integration of schools in the 1950s. Ferillo joins a pair of civil rights leaders — the late Matthew Perry and Cleveland Sellers — as its third recipient.
Ferillo recently talked about his efforts to help schools.
How did you become involved in the effort to increase state aid for the state’s poorest schools?
Ferillo: My passion for public education came while serving as deputy lieutenant governor in Gov. Dick Riley’s second term (in the early 1980s) when we worked to pass the Education Improvement Act, which carried a penny sales tax increase, strong incentives for improvement and accountability provisions to measure results. I gave pro bono public relations services in the school funding case because I knew the trial was being held in remote Clarendon County, where they have only a weekly newspaper. This case needed statewide attention, knowing that ultimately it will take state action to resolve the issues, many of which are systemic and expensive.
During the trial, I was asked by several foundations and community leaders to produce and direct a documentary on the issues in the case. “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools” premiered on April 3, 2004, with two screenings at the Columbia Museum of Art, and then it ran multiple times on S.C. ETV and cable channels.
The documentary has been inserted in the curricula of education, sociology and political science departments of most of the state’s colleges.We estimate that over two million South Carolinians have seen “Corridor of Shame.”
The film had impact. President Barack Obama raised the profile of the case and the documentary during his 2007-08 primary campaign. He spent hours behind closed doors with administrators, teachers and parents trying to understand the problems in those schools. Fully briefed, he talked about the “Corridor of Shame” all over the country. His administration helped secure the financing for the new middle school in Dillon. ,
How many of the state’s 85 school districts fall into the category of those you are attempting to help?
Ferillo: Forty began the lawsuit, Abbeville v. State of South Carolina, in 2003. A number of them have consolidated since. There are about 135,000 students in those schools, imprisoned by the very geography of their birth and the reluctance of state government to address the method of funding public education in districts where local tax effort has disappeared.
Why do you feel education in these schools is substandard?
Ferillo: Conditions are abysmal. The facilities are unsafe, unsanitary and poor learning environments. Many are a century old. Then you have teacher salaries so low, that causes high rates of turnover and little possibility of success in reading, math, science and foreign languages. Many schools use second-hand computers from our prison system. I cannot believe any fair look at these schools would lead anyone to believe they are minimally adequate, which is about as poor a standard as you can have. These schools are why South Carolina is so low in national rankings. Address their problems through a comprehensive plan over the next decade and South Carolina schools will be in the mid-range of national ranking.
Should the state do anything more to help these schools besides increasing aid?
Ferillo: The state can do a lot of things that other states are doing by providing early childhood education to 3- and 4-year-olds, providing parenting classes, after-school programs, tutoring, summer school programs. Districts desperately need teachers with the training to teach reading and remedial reading, math, science and foreign languages. We should be incentivizing teachers to take that kind of coursework Right now, the pipeline is producing too few teachers with the skills needed to reach students in high poverty districts.Things change when state officials take an oath to uphold a mandate of high quality education.
Sign a petition for just that at www.goodbye minimallyadequate.com.
Can schools do anything themselves to correct the problems you see?
Ferillo: Schools can’t do much more on their own. A few more districts can be consolidated but that won’t save much money. They need help not only from the state but from parents, volunteers, businesses, churches and civic organizations. There are contributions that virtually every part of these communities can make. But nothing can take the place of an aggressive state government which is responsible for public education.