IN SOME S.C. school districts, state-mandated technology upgrades can’t be completed without threatening the building’s collapse, bus drivers routinely take a break mid-route to take 4-year-olds to the bathroom, and teachers know they can’t be fired because the district can’t find replacements.
I’ve never been comfortable with school advocates’ nearly exclusive focus on money as the solution to what ails our struggling rural school districts. These districts, which filed suit 24 years ago alleging correctly that the state was not providing their students with a decent education, need a lot more than money. They need better leadership, and better teachers, and smarter programs for teaching hard-to-teach kids.
But that does take more money, so it’s important to understand some of their challenges, which schools with more money don’t face.
Consider these examples from a report the plaintiff school districts in Abbeville v. South Carolina filed last month with the state Supreme Court:
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▪ “Students in several Plaintiff Districts attend ‘Jimmy Byrnes schools,’ that is, schools built in the 1950s with revenue from a sales tax enacted during Governor Byrnes’s administration. At one high school, wiring to support the technology necessary for (state-mandated) online assessments requires penetrating the existing walls to run cables. Penetrating the walls alarmed the local fire marshal about the quickness with which a fire could move from one classroom to another and the age of the fire warning and suppression system. However, a new warning and suppression system is estimated to cost $500,000. Bamberg School District Two reports that cutting into the walls to install technology infrastructure weakened the integrity of the roof. The State does not account for the cumulative impact of installing current technology on student safety in older schools.”
▪ In Allendale County, some 4-year-olds get on the bus as early as 6:10 a.m. for the long trip to school, and “it is not unusual to pause and take younger students into the high school to use the bathroom before continuing their journey.” Districts could shorten the routes with more, smaller buses, but that requires more drivers, and since state law requires bus drivers to have commercial licenses, it’s tough to recruit them. “One superintendent reports that ‘recruiting bus drivers is as difficult as recruiting teachers.’” Some districts help pay for training, but the state-provided salary is just $7.70 an hour, and some districts can’t afford to supplement that salary, so drivers are recruited away by commercial trucking companies.
▪ Unable to recruit local teachers, rural districts report having to pay $2,000 to $12,000 to placement services to find international teachers. Even Teach for America requires districts to pay a $4,000 fee per year per teacher, for a three-year commitment. One superintendent is quoted as saying: “All I can do is fill positions. Ten years ago I could choose among qualified applicants; today I’m lucky to have one applicant.” Another had an even more depressing assessment: “Nothing is more defeating than standing in front of a faculty who know they do not have to follow your lead. After all, you are lucky just to have them.”
Teachers know they don’t have to follow the superintendent’s lead because ‘you are lucky just to have them.’
▪ Schools need to form partnerships with local businesses in order to provide the career preparation that students always needed and that state law increasingly requires them to receive, but “Distance from industry and inadequate student transportation (either school or student provided) make job shadowing, summer internships, or apprenticeships impossible.”
Many of these difficulties are simply a fact of life in rural settings, or “the challenges of rurality,” as Jo Anne Anderson, the highly respected first director of the state’s Education Oversight Committee, explained in the report, which she compiled for the plaintiffs. Even with the best leaders and the best ideas, it still costs more to get rural students to school than suburban or urban students. Rural counties have fewer businesses per square mile. And schools built in the 1950s create expenses (and not just for technology) that more modern buildings don’t.
Our lawmakers ought to be aware of these challenges as they decide what to do to fix poor rural schools.
But as I noted in a column last week, some of the difficulties are exacerbated by school districts’ resistance to consolidations. As the report puts it: “Small enrollment districts face a dual dilemma — are there sufficient students to generate the (state) revenues to offer a course and are there teachers certified to teach the course? As a consequence, Chesterfield County Schools currently cannot offer Biology 2, Chemistry 2, and Physics. Allendale County Schools offer only one foreign language (Spanish), Dillon School District Four pays teachers to teach additional courses because of teacher shortages. Despite innovative scheduling and shared teachers, many high schools find themselves without the resources to offer the comprehensive curriculum necessary for student access to college and careers.”
I’m not sure how much bearing any of this has on the legal arguments about whether the Supreme Court should continue overseeing the Legislature’s compliance with its order to provide a decent education to students in these poor, rural districts. But I’m certain that our lawmakers ought to be aware of these challenges as they decide what to do — and all of us ought to be aware of them as we decide what to think about our state’s obligation.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.