Once again a national study of schools has ranked South Carolina's near the bottom of the heap.

The state's rural schools are the third worst in the nation when it comes to the need for attention from state officials and lawmakers, according to the study by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust.

Only Mississippi and Alabama, in that order, scored below South Carolina. Massachusetts scored highest.

The report, titled "Why Rural Matters," says students in South Carolina's schools "performed among the lowest third of states in the US in math and fared even worse in reading." As a result, the report says, "South Carolina ranks as the third highest priority in terms of the need for policymakers' attention to rural education."

The report ranks all states in several categories that gauge the importance of rural education, the diversity of rural students and families, socioeconomic challenges, educational policy and expenditures and educational performance.

The five gauges clearly show that the sheer number of South Carolina's rural minority students combined with a depth of poverty and major unemployment creates a situation that has yielded poorly performing students.

The report said South Carolina's third worst ranking "stems mostly from the diversity of...student population and from the severe socioeconomic challenges facing families in rural areas."

About 2 out of 5 students in South Carolina attend rural schools.

For the first time in years, the state legislature, at the request of Gov. Nikki Haley, is poised to spend millions of dollars in assistance to those rural schools. In her State of the State speech in January, Haley called for spending $177 million to upgrade poor rural schools, especially in the areas of improving student literacy and access to technology.

Also for the first time in decades, improving public schools has taken center stage in the gubernatorial campaign, with both Haley and her Democratic challenger from Camden, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, calling for reform.

Alan Richard, a board member of the Community Trust and former resident of South Carolina, said that despite the legislature's efforts this year, there's still "lots of work to do in the good old Palmetto State."

"Triple what they're doing every year wouldn't be enough, and some of our rural areas will still take many years of work to catch up," Richard added. "But why not start now?"

South Carolina's immediate neighbors North Carolina and Georgia ranked 4th and 8th respectively.

The Rural School and Community Trust is a Washington D.C. based nonprofit focused on the relationship between good schools and thriving communities with a focus on rural education.

This year's study is the trust's seventh in a series of biennial looks at the conditions of rural education in each of the 50 states.

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558