Ramp up rural education

Photo illustration by Gill Guerry/Staff

No one loves to talk about his elementary school years more than someone who started out in a tiny, rural school and went on to college and a successful career. The rustic rooms and shared books become elements of a romantic memory.

But for every success story, there are far more stories without happy educational endings.

And South Carolina has more than its share of those stories, which contribute to high rural unemployment and poverty and low academic performance and college attendance in rural areas.

Fortunately, the problem is getting some much-needed attention in Columbia. Gov. Nikki Haley has requested the Legislature approve $177 million for rural schools - primarily for improving student literacy and providing access to technology.

Both chambers have been receptive, but details are still to be worked out. The effort to make this happen should not be derailed.

Gov. Haley's efforts are further justified by a recent report by Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit agency. Data it analyzed indicate that South Carolina's rural schools are in urgent need of help - more so than all but Alabama and Mississippi.

In general, rural schools have fewer students spread over larger areas. The cost of transporting students is greater, and usually the tax base is smaller.

Rural students have less access to technology and other resources available to urban and suburban students.

And there are lots of them in South Carolina - 127,104, according to the report. Forty percent of students in South Carolina attend school in a rural district.

Students in the state's rural schools performed among the lowest third of states in math and fared worse in reading. South Carolina adults in rural areas face the second highest unemployment rate in the nation.

The governor's jobs, jobs, jobs initiative has brought some business and industry to rural areas, but many require a larger employee pool than rural areas provide.

Among the initiatives Gov. Haley would like to establish for rural areas are reading camps and full-time reading coaches. Technology upgrades are key for students with limited options. They would have far more access to information and could take classes remotely.

President Barack Obama introduced a plan in 2013 to wire 99 percent of America's students to high-speed broadband and wireless networks within five years.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for the industry to help accelerate technological upgrades for classrooms, including moving textbooks from print to digital.

Improving the education of rural students isn't a partisan issue.

But it is a critical one.

Gov. Haley's proposal deserves enthusiastic support, and the Legislature should continue to look for ways to move the state from the bottom of the rural-school pile.