Chapter 2 - Schools restricted by poverty
In antebellum times, what is now Allendale County served as the home for numerous plantations that took advantage of the Savannah River to ship produce to markets in Savannah and Augusta. Most of those plantations were burned in Gen. William T. Sherman's march through South Carolina during the last days of the Civil War.
Many say the area's economy never recovered, other than for a time between World War II and the 1970s when the town served as a way station for people driving north or south on U.S. Highway 301.
The county came into existence in 1919, carved out of Barnwell and Hampton counties. It is one of 11 counties created after the state's 1895 constitution made it relatively easy to draw new county lines.
From a practical point of view, smaller counties shortened the distances many people had to travel to get to the county seat. But many historians believe the county's creation was political, to dilute Charleston's power.
At that time, each county got its own all-powerful senator, regardless of population. That lasted until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a series of federal court rulings invalidated the state's provisions for one senator and at least one House member for each county. The courts ruled the practice a violation of one man, one vote, and by the mid-1970s the state adopted home-rule, giving local government real power.
The 11 counties created after the 1895 constitution are among the 26 that struggle today with disparities in education, health and economic opportunity. Six of those counties have populations of 25,000 or less and little industry, making it difficult to raise tax money for schools or the sewer and water systems necessary to lure industry.
A December 2011 state Commerce Department study shows that Allendale County has attempted to do what it can to pay for its schools. The county approved one of the state's highest school tax rates on property.
But that's nowhere near enough to pay for the schools. As a result, the county relies on the state and federal government for more than 70 percent of its school budget.
Most school districts in the I-95 Corridor and the Mill Crescent rely on federal and state money to compensate for small tax bases. Many of those counties lack people and businesses to tax, and much of the land is in farms or timber, for which state law allows a much lower property tax rate.
Harold McClain, Allendale's recently removed school superintendent, believes the hard-luck county deserves even more state money to reach equity with better-off school districts. He praises Gov. Nikki Haley's attempt to raise donations for a track, but says the schools need more and consistent state support, not charity.
Although no longer superintendent, he hopes a decision on a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court will force the state to provide much more help for Allendale and other struggling, high-poverty school districts.
Allendale School Board Chairwoman Wilda Robinson, who was elected to the board late last year, offered little explanation for McClain's removal, saying, “I'm not obligated to go into detail.” She explained only that the board wanted to move in a “new direction that will allow us to see better performance and better achievement.”
On Thursday, McClain expressed shock at his removal and said “I have no idea” why the board took that action. “I am truly amazed... The district was poised to move forward in a positive way that we have not seen in 20 years.”
Poverty remains the overarching problem for South Carolina's K-12 public education system. Studies show that children of poverty generally achieve at lower levels than children from higher-income families. The reasons are many, but high on the list are lack of exposure to reading and other academic stimulation.
Census figures show that 16 percent of South Carolinians and 28 percent of the state's children live below the poverty line of about $23,000 for a family of four.
The rate of student poverty in the state's public schools runs far higher, largely because it is calculated by the number of students who get free or reduced lunches. Children qualify for free lunches if their family income is up to 130 percent of the poverty level, and for reduced lunches if family income is less than 185 percent above the poverty line.
Just four of the state's 83 school districts show student poverty rates below 50 percent. And almost 40 percent of the districts list student poverty rates greater than 80 percent.
White flight from public schools, after racial segregation was outlawed, holds some of the blame for the high poverty rate, especially in the Mill Crescent and I-95 Corridor. Whites have not returned in significant numbers to many predominantly poor and black South Carolina school districts, enrolling instead in other public districts or private schools.
That, in turn, deprives the poor schools of generally higher-performing students and better-off parents with a vested interest in supporting public K-12 education.
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has said poverty does not have to be a predictor of poor academic performance. But many of the state's school districts in the I-95 Corridor and the Mill Crescent face the double hurdle of daunting student poverty and lacking tax bases.
During his two-terms from 1979-1987, former Gov. Dick Riley pushed through a major improvement in how much the state puts up for K-12 public schools. The Greenville lawyer and former Secretary of Education during the Clinton administration said the state has since shirked its duty to educate its children.
Last month, in her State of the State address Haley called on the Legislature to join with her in looking for ways to improve the quality of K-12 education, especially in poor school districts, which don't have the money to do what is needed. However, she offered no specifics.
More money for public schools, and poor ones in particular, would require the Legislature to adopt a dramatically different priority.
Between 2007 and 2012, the state slashed the money it provided districts as a “base student cost” by more than 20 percent, according to data prepared by the Southern Education Foundation, which works to improve education of low-income and minority students.
Riley said such cuts show “state leaders don't understand their responsibility for education.”
“The focus is not on the central purpose of the state, and that is one of the central problems of the state,” he said.