Minimally Adequate panel

The Post and Courier's 'Minimally Adequate' education panel at Furman University in Greenville on Jan. 14, 2019 featured former U.S. Education Sec. Dick Riley and other top education officials. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

GREENVILLE — Justus Cox thought high school was a breeze until he got to his first college biology class at Anderson University.

"That was my first failing grade ever," Cox said. "I actually had to read a book, and I actually had to study. I can honestly say school did not prepare me for my first collegiate class. It was a smack in the face and very humbling once I got there.

"I guess," Cox added, "you could say I was minimally adequate."

That experience, Cox said, highlighted the important nature of a panel discussion Monday on education reform.

Now a fifth-grade teacher at New Prospect Elementary School in Inman, Cox told a crowd of 450 at Furman University that his students are facing some of the same challenges he did growing up in the Upstate — poverty, homelessness, family drug abuse — that make quality public schools even more critical to give children a chance to emerge.

Panelists also included former U.S. Secretary of Education and S.C. Gov. Dick Riley, Tanglewood Middle School principal Edward Anderson, Michelin director of government relations Leesa Owens and Public Education Partners chief executive Ansel Sanders.

The forum was the second of four hosted by The Post and Courier in the wake of the newspaper's series "Minimally Adequate," which laid out how gaping disparities have left thousands of South Carolina students unprepared for college or the modern workforce after high school.

Published in November, the 5-part series detailed how the state’s public school system is divided by race, mired in inequities and hobbled by a history of apathy and low expectations. The series is titled after the low standard South Carolina set for its public schools.

Riley, the last governor to pass a major education initiative in the 1980s, said any solution would need to be comprehensive and go beyond broadly accepted ideas like boosting teacher pay.

"Not piecemeal, not one thing at a time," said Riley, one of the last Democrats in the governor's office. "All of us are interested in teachers' pay, principals' pay, an increase. That is just very clear. But we need to think about everything, dozens and dozens of things."

Both increased pay and professional development could help with teacher retention, Anderson said, which he explained has been particularly difficult because of the problems children bring with them from home in high-poverty communities.

"When you ask teachers to contend with an issue that society hasn't even solved, then they deserve every day to be recognized and to be honored for the work that they're doing," Anderson said.

The "Minimally Adequate" series also showed the Legislature sat idle while gaps in achievement and resources widened, leaving daunting divides between rural and urban districts, poor and affluent schools, and white and black students.

That long-running inequality led Sanders to argue that all reform efforts should be viewed through the lens of how the changes would impact equity.

"We live in a state that has really put us behind the ball when it comes to functioning through that equity lens," Sanders said. "It has roots in our troubled history with regard to slavery and Jim Crow and has manifested itself through the decades."

South Carolina’s schools trail other states by nearly every measure, leaving students unprepared to work as businesses struggle to find qualified workers to fill skilled jobs.

In the decades that Michelin has had facilities in South Carolina, Owens said the skills they look for have changed as the industry has become increasingly focused on advanced technology. That's made it harder to find employees who are prepared and have the ability to work effectively as a team.

"Forty years ago, oftentimes the profile of a person who would come to work for us on the shop floor would be somebody that wasn't as interested in education, chose not to go to college," Owens said. "But in today's world, that doesn't fit our needs."

In the wake of the newspaper's series, S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, called for immediate action on education reform in this year’s legislative session, saying "without significant reforms, our students won’t have a future." Republican Gov. Henry McMaster promised to make education a primary focus of his budget released Tuesday. 

Since the series published, state lawmakers have submitted more than 100 bills aimed at fixing South Carolina’s education system, including proposals seeking a constitutional amendment to require a high-quality education for all children.

Other bills would boost teacher pay and recruitment, reduce standardized testing demands and allow year-round schooling.

Riley said those efforts cannot come too soon.

"It's one thing here to be talking about how important this is, and everyone agrees it is," Riley said. "But I want everybody to have a sense of urgency."

The next 'Minimally Adequate' forum will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Russell House on the Columbia campus of the University of South Carolina.

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Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.