The Post and Courier recently reported on the ribbon cutting for the new $4.5 million Meeting Street Academy. I celebrate every good effort to afford children a quality education and hope for the continued success of the administration, faculty and staff of the school and for equal success for the students and their parents. A few things said in the story, however, demand a little commentary.
The story noted that Rep. Wendell Gilliard criticized State Secretary of Education Mick Zais for making remarks that some parents found to be demeaning and racially insensitive and that Jay Ragley of Mr. Zais’ staff accused Rep. Gilliard of playing partisan politics and opposing legislation to help children in struggling schools. Mr. Ragley would have done well to avoid a knee jerk response about “partisan politics” and accurately depict the legislation opposed by Rep. Gilliard.
The legislation in question would strengthen private schools and emphasize “choice” to the financial detriment of traditional public schools that are already struggling with shrinking budgets. Rep. Gilliard has been a reliable supporter of quality public education, and I commend him for speaking up for the best interests of and demanding respect for those who elected him to represent them.
I stand with Rep. Gilliard in supporting public education. The $4.5 million Meeting Street Academy was established and is supported by a benefactor whose company covers the cost of everything from teachers’ salaries to student uniforms to the lion’s share of tuition.
The school sits on land purchased for $4.75 million by the Charleston City Council — at the strong urging of Mayor Joe Riley — and then leased to the school at little or no cost. Public schools have to settle for meager appropriations, and many public school teachers use their own money to purchase supplies. Money is not a “cure all,” but I can think of many public schools that would benefit from $9.25 million in combined private and local governmental support for each individual school.
The story reports that the school’s academic results have been promising, and that’s laudable. The school, however, is not subject to the same evaluative criteria as public schools, so “promising” is harder to quantify and a comparison to public schools is like the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges. The story notes that parents are expected to take active roles in their children’s education — as all responsible parents should — and that their failure to do so can lead to their children losing their spots at the school. Traditional public schools can’t set such criteria — they’re obligated to welcome all students and parents regardless of ability, motivation, involvement or special need.
The story also noted the presence at the ribbon cutting of Gov. Nikki Haley, a vigorous supporter of the school established by one of her major campaign contributors. She’s quoted as saying, “This is what I want every school in South Carolina to look like.” I fully agree with her stated hope. All she has to do is persuade private benefactors and local governments to pour $9.25 million — plus the ongoing cost of everything from tuition to supplies to student uniforms — into every single public school in South Carolina.
I don’t expect that to happen tomorrow. At present, only one school modeled after the Meeting Street Academy is planned for Spartanburg. Until the miraculous level of support required to fulfill Gov. Haley’s stated hope is realized, I’d offer other suggestions to her and to those of like political mind.
Realize that public education is an important and fundamental thread in the fabric of our state and a door to equitable opportunity. Acknowledge that not every child in our state will attend private or charter schools and that educational alternatives that draw children with the most apparent signs of educational promise away from public schools can increase the challenges for students left behind. Abandon self-serving, partisan rhetoric and find nonpartisan solutions that address the desires of those who seek educational choices while assuring that every public school in South Carolina is truly equipped to compete.
We can then provide more than the “minimally adequate” public education mandated by our state’s constitution and see that all children have the opportunity to achieve educational excellence.
The Reverend Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church, and press and publicity chairperson of the Charleston Branch NAACP.