SUMMERTON — U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet brought his 2020 presidential campaign Tuesday to one of the most consistently neglected regions of South Carolina, looking to shine a spotlight on vast inequality that has haunted the state's public education system for decades and led parts to be nicknamed the "Corridor of Shame."
In a hyper-crowded Democratic presidential primary field, the Colorado senator sought to distinguish himself as the candidate with some of the most direct education experience as a former superintendent of Denver schools.
"I decided to run for president because I was concerned about our lack of attention to the next generation, I was concerned about our lack of attention to the inequities that exist in our education system," Bennet told a group of around 40 teachers and education advocates in Clarendon County.
The visit to Summerton, the historic small town that gave rise to the critical desegregation court case of Briggs v. Elliott, offered Bennet an opportunity to discuss his support for universal pre-school, raising teacher salaries and retooling federal funding formulas to more directly target the country's most desperate students.
The senator also displayed extensive knowledge of the problems that have plagued South Carolina's schools and the efforts to fix them, detailed last year in The Post and Courier's 'Minimally Adequate' series.
He mentioned, for example, that less than 25 percent of S.C. legislators actually have children in public schools, a finding of the series that he argued helps to explain why policymakers are out of touch with the needs of the K-12 system.
Bennet's fluency in education policy appeared to impress participants in the education roundtable, many of whom admitted that the meeting was the first time they had ever seen or heard of him. He has yet to register any support in polls of likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters.
"It was easy for him to understand because it's something that he actually knows about, instead of someone who doesn't understand where we're coming from and tries to act like they do," said Devin Owens, a sophomore at Clemson University majoring in education.
The trip also sought to capitalize on one of the most prominent moments of Bennet's underdog campaign thus far in last week's debate, when he intervened in another dispute between frontrunners Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over busing in the 1970s to argue that the focus should instead be on segregation that's still ongoing 50 years later.
"We need a conversation about what’s happening now, and when there’s a group of kids in this country that don’t get pre-school through no fault of their own and another group does — equal is not equal," Bennet said. “We’ve got a group of K–12 schools that are good because families can spend a million bucks, and you got the Detroit public schools that are as segregated as they were.”
Both at the education roundtable in Summerton and during a meet-and-greet at JK's House of Ribs in Manning, several attendees highlighted that debate moment as one that brought their attention to Bennet's little-known candidacy for the first time.
But, with a dose of humility that can be rare on the campaign trail, Bennet also conceded Tuesday that education remains primarily a state-level issue and he "can't solve South Carolina's problem from the White House."
"South Carolina's got to figure out how to fund its schools in a way that's actually equitable," Bennet said. "What we can do in Washington is make sure the federal share of this is supporting the kids who need it most, and that's the work I've been committed to for a lifetime and will continue to be whether I end up in this job or not."