The recent “Minimally Adequate” series published in The Post and Courier exposing the condition of public education in our state has received wide acclaim — justifiably so, in my view.
South Carolina has a long history of underperforming on behalf of its children, practically from birth. Much of that history was invested in assuring that children of color were left out, beginning with an 1835 statute that made it illegal to teach a black child to read and extending well into the 20th century, when we invented state assessments to keep black children out of Clemson and the University of South Carolina. The “Minimally Adequate” series lays it all out.
One would think that we in South Carolina would, therefore, feel a special responsibility to correct these inequities. Certainly, we would fully fund our own statutory commitment to support our schools. We might even feel obligated to lead in the development of funding formulas that are based on need.
After all, much of the poverty that drives our failing schools exists in our state as a direct result of this history of racial bias in our institutions. Yet, despite all of this history, South Carolina has not made education equity a priority.
Why is this?
• The majority of us who move here, white or black, don’t experience the effects of a failed education. Our children may be in good schools, or they were raised and educated with the benefit of whatever social and financial capital we could muster on their behalf.
By comparison, we experience traffic jams and potholes here and are mad as hell about the condition of our infrastructure and expect something to be done about it.
• We have a series of “if onlys” to fall back on, and the recently released state school report cards, if misread, provide further justification. “If only those teachers would…” or “if only those parents would…” and similar blame-placing statements serve to mask the underlying root causes of what is now a full-blown systemic crisis.
When a system repeatedly fails in the same way, the causes are in the system, not among its stakeholders. When the same fish are found belly up in a lake, the problem isn’t with the fish. The problem is with the water.
• Our business community enjoys a strong economy and, at least until the labor market tightened, could relegate public education to an object of charity and volunteerism. For the short term at least, the failings of the talent supply chain can be successfully if expensively overcome with imported workers.
• Our government leaders let themselves off the hook by incorrectly claiming as mayors and city council members that education is the responsibility of the school boards and superintendents and not their own.
Our legislators claim to bear some responsibility for education, but they generally know little about the state’s role in creating these conditions and less about what to do about it. It is fair to say that as the electorate, we let them all off the hook.
It does appear, however, that the “Minimally Adequate” series has created something of a stir in Columbia.
There are indications that Gov. Henry McMaster is open to the idea that better-paid teachers may be as important to our schools as cops with guns.
There is even some possibility that the tax code may be opened up, creating the possibility that the arcane and highly inequitable manner in which schools and districts are funded could be re-examined.
Closer to home, there are indications that a renewed attempt to transform the Charleston County School District (CCSD) may be underway. Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait has moved quickly to convene a diverse community group to tackle how the district is to respond to the Clemson Diversity and Inclusion Study, the Avery Institute’s Racial Disparities report and the AdvancedEd recommendations.
This group — referred to as the Scenario Planning Team, of which I am a member — will update the school board in December and report to the community in January.
Many will view with disbelief and distrust the prospect of real reform taking place. We haven’t seen a governor take a serious interest in education since Gov. Richard Riley, and the number of studies and reports detailing what’s wrong with CCSD could fill a library.
Incidentally, similar problems can also be observed in Dorchester and Berkeley counties.
What’s needed is a movement of parents, teachers, civic and business leaders, “if onlys,” naysayers and distrusters to demand the transformation of public education here.
Teacher pay and school funding are on the table, and the Lowcountry delegation (our state senators and representatives) need to hear from us that we are no longer willing to see successive generations of children failed by an antiquated and inequitable system.
Movements are formed when people suspend their disbelief that change is possible. They live not based on some fixed solution but rather on the knowledge of what is is no longer acceptable. The reasons why the public education system is failing are complex; they are no one’s fault and everyone’s responsibility.
Have that be enough.
John C. Read is the chief executive officer of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative.