COLUMBIA,SC — Five influential South Carolina bishops have written an open letter to the state’s residents, urging reform of the public education system and rescue of children mired in poverty and hopelessness.
The bishops — two Episcopal, one Roman Catholic, one Lutheran and one United Methodist — hope their collective gravitas, backed by the support of their 450,000 parishioners, will persuade citizens and state legislators to reform and fund a system they believe is failing too many children.
“Crumbling buildings, inadequate funding, and low expectations mark too many districts at a time when a 21st century economy demands more of our people. How can the next generation rise to the challenge of this day and age when they are not given the superior education they deserve?” the bishops wrote in the letter.
“Even in the most successful of school districts, too many students underachieve, or worse, fall through the cracks and do not achieve success. All too easily they can become caught in the grip of poverty.”
The letter is signed by the Rev. Dr. Herman R. Yoos III, bishop of the S.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rt. Rev. W. Andrew Waldo,bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina; the Rt. Rev. Charles Glenn vonRosenberg, bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina; the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston; and the Rev. L. Jonathan Holston, bishop of the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The five comprise the South Carolina network known as LARCUM, an ecumenical group of Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Methodists.
In the past, Yoos said, LARCUM leaders have gathered twice a year for a meal and dialogue. But the situation in the public schools, particularly along the I-95 corridor, known as the Corridor of Shame, has prompted them to take on education.
The bishops already have received support from the Christian Action Council, Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and bishops in the AME and AME Zion denominations.
“I would say that there seems to be a stirring up of God’s spirit to be part of this advocacy of children,” said Yoos, who represents 53,000 Lutherans in 155 congregations. “The longer we wait to do anything, the longer we are not helping children to achieve their God-given potential.”
He said they cannot wait on the outcome of a long-awaited legal case, Abbeville County vs. state of South Carolina, in which the state Supreme Court will finally determine what constitutes a “minimally adequate” education as defined by the state’s constitution.
Their biblical mandate figures prominently in the bishops’ undertaking, said vonRosenberg, who represents 6,000 in 30 TEC congregations in the Lowcountry.
“I think we need to bring people around as a reality in the process, but we can certainly preach the truth,” said vonRosenberg, who taught in the public schools before entering seminary. “If Jesus walked through South Carolina he would identify with folks in the Corridor of Shame. That is radical but it is clearly biblically true.”
“Remembering, learning and telling the story is so much a part of biblical life,” Waldo said Friday. “For our children, if we can’t teach them, they can’t know the story of who they are and they can’t make a new story.”
The bishops met with former Gov. Dick Riley and members of the Riley Institute at Furman University at an October forum at Columbia’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. That gathering, which included school superintendents and teachers, helped the bishops shape a vision for a five-year plan.
The bishops are asking every congregation they oversee to engage in some sort of outreach to schools. The United Methodists, under Holston, already are organizing a drive called the “One Million Book Effort” to provide one million books to preschool and elementary school children in the poorest schools. They hope to complete the drive by June 3, when the church meets for its annual conference in Florence.
Eventually, the bishops will meet with legislators to talk about the nitty-gritty of school funding, including S.C. Act 388, which removed property taxes from school funding formulas and has been criticized for increasing disparities among localities.
“We don’t want to do much with the Legislature at this point, because we don’t want to make this is a political issue,” said Guglielmone, the Catholic bishop who represents about 200,000 Roman Catholics in 199 congregations. “We don’t want it to be reduced to that. We want to raise the issue after the elections, because no matter who is in office, everyone is going to have to focus on this.”
Guglielmone oversees a network of Catholic schools and is a champion of faith-based education. But he said the majority of children in the state, including Roman Catholics, are educated in the public schools, and some of those schools are not living up to their responsibilities.
“When you get into some of the poor counties in this state, oh my goodness,” he said. The diocese has several orders of Roman Catholic sisters working in rural areas, including Kingstree, St. Helena Island, Georgetown and Gloverville, who find themselves spending a great deal of time in after-school tutoring.
Waldo, who represents 25,000 Episcopalians in 61 congregations in the Midlands and Upstate, said the Episcopal church has long been involved in literacy efforts. “It feels to be the most natural thing in the world to mobilize the members of our congregation for what is an increasingly worrisome trend in which the poorest of the poor are left behind. We can’t have justice without education; we can’t have fairness; we can’t have people living the fullness of their lives without education.”
“I’m actually making specific requests of the men in our congregations to assist children who don’t have fathers at home,” Waldo said. “I believe we can come to the Legislature with a very different witness if we can say we have 150,000 who are committed to the children of this state.”
READ THE LETTER