Rural teacher shortage about to get worse (copy)

Math teacher Hailey Vinchiarello helps students pick a college so they can start planning for their future during classes Thursday at St. Stephen Middle School.

Like many South Carolinians, I have seen our hospitals close, driven on crumbling roads and witnessed far too many of our students struggle to find their way. While placing the blame for these problems on our political class is a reasonable reaction — particularly the South Carolina GOP, which has controlled state government and dominated congressional delegations for decades — there are still roles that each of us can play to foster a South Carolina that works for everyone.

That is why I launched Opportunity Project SC, an effort focused on closing what I believe are opportunity gaps across South Carolina. These opportunity gaps in health care, technology and education continue to expand, leaving many of our rural communities behind.

I could not sit idle while rural hospitals like Bamberg County Hospital, located in my former Statehouse district, become a thing of the past, and local community health providers come to be less accessible to the area families that need them the most. Opportunity Project SC was formed to allocate grants to health providers in areas that were hit the hardest by South Carolina’s refusal to expand Medicaid.

We all know public school teachers who pay out of pocket for their own school supplies. On the other hand, we have heard about the antiquated technology that fails to prepare our students in rural school districts for success in college or the workforce. Opportunity Project SC aims to close that gap by awarding supply grants to teachers, hiring grant writers that district offices can utilize to pursue federal and philanthropic grants, and forming partnerships with technology companies to support our most underserved school districts.

Even as Opportunity Project SC works to address these various opportunity gaps across South Carolina, there remain glaring political problems in South Carolina that sit at the heart of the issues Opportunity Project SC seeks to address.

There are far too many South Carolinians who remain unregistered to vote, and not enough voters engaged in the electoral process. As a result, our political class fails and their priorities fail to reflect the growing political and ethnic diversity of South Carolina, as well as the growing progressivity of our residents.

Changing our electorate and closing the gaps in our civic engagement — in terms of voter registration and engaging infrequent voters — is a necessary first step in addressing the other disparities highlighted by Opportunity Project SC.

Data gathered by Opportunity Project SC estimates that there are over 127,000 registered but inactive African-American voters in South Carolina, and almost 210,000 eligible but unregistered African-Americans.

Observe these statistics through the lens of 2018 when the gap at the top of the ticket consisted of only 137,000 voters, you see an electoral path to changing South Carolina from our school boards to our next governor in 2022.

If you consider the thousands of African-American infrequent voters and include similar categories of inactive, unregistered and infrequent-voting millennial, college students and high school seniors, a new electoral landscape illuminates a path to the more inclusive South Carolina that we deserve.

I wish I lived in a South Carolina where an organization like Opportunity Project SC was not needed, but that is not the case. However, for the sake of the families that reside in these rural communities and the quality of life for their children, Opportunity Project SC is needed now more than ever.

We saw Jon Bel Edwards’ election in Louisiana lead to Medicaid expansion. We saw Doug Jones’ historic win in Alabama bring decency to the U.S. Senate. And we can remember what electing Dick Riley and Jim Hodges did for us.

We are always one election away from setting South Carolina on the right trajectory. I believe that Opportunity Project SC helps us get there by engaging our voters, expanding the electorate, and fighting alongside communities and organizations that still believe that our best days are ahead.

Bakari Sellers is the founder of the Opportunity Project South Carolina, a CNN commentator, and a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives representing Bamberg County and parts of Barnwell, Colleton and Orangeburg counties.