Rising to the challenges of ‘Forgotten South Carolina’

All across Forgotten South Carolina, stores in once-thriving farm towns sit boarded up, a problem requiring a broad response from the public and their leaders aimed at a general uplift for South Carolina.

Readers of The Post and Courier have gotten an eye-opening survey of South Carolina’s shortcomings in education, health care and employment in Doug Pardue’s “Forgotten South Carolina.”

His four-part series on the poorest 26 counties in the state, based on seven months of reporting, has revealed broad disparities with their wealthier counterparts like Charleston, Greenville and Richland.

Mr. Pardue’s chronicle ought to be required reading for the state’s leadership. And his recommendations to improve those persistent problems, in today’s edition, ought to get the attention of policymakers, too.

Money, as he notes, is a major component in remedying the problems.

And while money usually is in short supply, it won’t cost anything for the powers that be in Columbia to review the consequences of misplaced priorities and see where adjustments can be made.

For example, the state’s system of governance can be improved, streamlined and made more accountable.

As detailed in his third installment last week, it has been historically designed to diminish the power of the executive branch, and spread it out among the Legislature and its appointees. Many of the state’s seemingly intractable problems can be traced to a system that doesn’t rely on the leadership of a governor, but on power brokers in the House and Senate.

In short, the system isn’t designed for public accountability or institutional advancement of essential services such as public education.

Strengthening the executive branch would provide for a reordering of priorities, including the manner in which state dollars are to be spent. Strengthening the Cabinet system would allow for decisive action by the state’s chief executive, who was elected to fulfill that responsibility.

Creating a Department of Administration to expand the executive authority of the governor would be a significant advance. So would giving the governor expanded appointment powers — for example, for the superintendent of education. There are bills before the Legislature to do both this session. They should be passed.

Meanwhile, consolidating school districts within counties to provide a more efficient use of resources deserves the Legislature’s support, despite the local opposition that is sure to follow.

More help is needed in Allendale County, which has only 1,400 students, a low tax base and a long-standing inability to provide an adequate education for its children. The improvements made in the district after the state took over on an emergency basis in 1999 suggest the need for closer ongoing state involvement there and in other troubled districts.

Public education is a fundamental responsibility of state government, and ought to get the resources needed to operate successfully.

In our view, less conventional methods for educational advancement — in school choice, for example — should continue to get local and state support. The competition puts the pressure on local districts to do a better job.

Further, the Legislature should recognize the consequences of Act 388, which limits the ability of school districts to raise funds locally through the property tax, and revise it accordingly. The recent recession demonstrated that the state sales tax is too volatile to rely upon.

Education is essential to improved prospects for the next generation of South Carolinians, and that includes on the jobs front. The ability of the state to sell economic development to those areas of “Forgotten South Carolina” will depend on improving public education.

Gov. Haley has made job creation the central focus of her administration, and has achieved some success in getting industry to locate in rural counties. Ultimately, a better educated workforce is essential to carry out that good work over the long term.

That means better teachers, aid for building projects, more adult education and an expanded instructional year, as warranted.

Broadly providing greater support for public education statewide is an area that South Carolinians will be willing to support, whether constitutionally imposed or not.

The same can’t be said for a fiscally unsustainable expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. Gov. Haley and legislative leaders oppose the idea, despite the blandishments of “free money” from the federal government.

But there should be no impediment to strengthening regional public health clinics throughout the state. They have a proven track record, and, as Mr. Pardue pointed out in a previous installment, they have had to scrape by because of a lack of state support.

South Carolinians may differ on solutions, but Mr. Pardue’s series clearly elucidates the many problems of “Forgotten South Carolina.”

Those problems require a broad response from the public and their leaders aimed at a general uplift.

Creating a new plan for public education is a good place to start.