I started my career in the mid-1980s, providing engineering design services for school districts throughout South Carolina. After a few years, it became apparent which districts could afford high-quality facilities for their students and which were struggling to just patch and repair their facilities.
It turned out that the academic statistics matched my engineering observations: high school dropout rates of up to 67 percent, 86 percent of students on free or reduced-price lunch programs, three times as many teachers with substandard teaching certificates in those economically depressed districts.
I understand that some factors impacting education are complex, but some are not. For example, teachers would tell me about turning off their window air conditioners so the students could hear them. I can remember doing survey work in a classroom in one school and thinking, “How is it possible for teachers to teach and students to learn in such a miserable environment?” The room without air conditioning was the exception, but it underscored the point that some facilities were much better equipped than others.
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Then in 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state was not providing a “minimally adequate education” for students in the state’s poorest districts and ordered both sides to work together to develop a solution.
More than three decades since I began providing engineering designs for schools, some conditions in the poorer districts have gotten better, but those schools still lag behind the better-funded districts. Many schools have minimal libraries, inadequate space for science, art, band and chorus, inadequate technology, antiquated fire alarm systems, buildings without sprinklers and outdated kitchens. Meantime, we see a district build a single school for more than $100 million and another district spend $50 million on mostly athletic upgrades.
How many thousands of students have gone through the poorer districts and not received a high-quality education since the discussion of funding began 25 years ago? Have we really solved any of our educational problems since I began a career that is now nearing its end? Even after the lawsuit was decided in 2014, do we know what it will cost to make these improvements?
Does anyone really care that our educational system continues to lag behind so much of the nation? How can we continue to move so slowly on the most important issue our state faces? Isn’t anyone upset that we still don’t have a path forward to provide all students with a good education?