It’s testing season for schools in South Carolina.
But some students in rural districts are falling behind their peers.
Among them are students in the three schools in Florence School District Four, the Timmonsville-based district that became notable in March after state education chief, Molly Spearman declared a state of emergency in two of those schools.
Proficiency rates in that district are in the single digits across multiple subjects and multiple grades.
The local school board responded to the declaration last month by ending the contract with the district superintendent, Andre Boyd.
The funding piece
School Board chief, Richard Hodges thinks the county should have just one school district, rather than five. Having multiple school districts means requiring local citizens to fund multiple superintendent salaries.
“The squeeze is on financially,” he said.
Many think that South Carolina public schools are underfunded, particularly in poor, rural districts.
The base student cost for the current fiscal year is $2,220. That figure is approved by the Legislature and is adjusted for inflation. The average per pupil funding after accounting for federal, state and local dollars is $12,092.
Cost of a minimally adequate education
The Florence district was a plaintiff, along with seven other districts, in the Abbeville Lawsuit. Upholding a 1990s-era court case, the state Supreme Court in 2014 ruled 3-2 in favor of the districts.
The plaintiff districts had claimed the state’s education system was underfunded, thereby violating the state’s constitutional requirements for adequate funding and violating state and federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
The other seven plaintiff districts were Allendale County School District, Dillon County School District Two, Hampton County School District Two, Jasper County School District, Lee County School District, Marion County School District Seven and Orangeburg County School District Three.
Florence Four received $12,466 in fiscal year 2014, the last year funds had been certified, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.
Neighboring Florence County School District One received $10,843 per student, but those students outperformed their neighbors dramatically.
Thirty-five percent of third through eighth graders who were tested in District Four met or exceeded ACT Aspire standards in English in 2015, and 12 percent met or exceeded the math standards. Sixty-nine percent and 42 percent of students in Florence One met or exceeded the standard in those subjects, respectively.
Most of the plaintiff districts in the Abbeville Lawsuit received from $11,000 to more than $16,000 per pupil in 2014, though Pickens County School Board member, Phillip Bowers pointed out these figures exclude bond revenue.
Trimming the fat
Bowers said many education challenges that districts face are due to elementary students not learning to read.
Educators have identified third grade as the age by which children should know how to read in order to excel in future grades.
As for students in schools lagging behind in South Carolina, Bowers thinks administrators and local school board members should assess every program and cut those programs that aren’t boosting education.
A path forward
Like Hodges, Bowers favors district consolidation. A common denominator among struggling districts is that they’re small, he said, usually due to their remote location.
A former member of both the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee, Bowers thinks South Carolina doesn’t need two bodies setting education priorities for the state’s students.
Many of the state board duties should be done locally, said Bowers.
“I think local control is probably the best way to fix our education issues,” he said. For instance, approving instructional material could easily be done at the local level because digital books can be obtained cheaply.
Current State Board of Education chairman, Mike Brenan was not available to comment for this story.
Hodges, who is also running for state House, said the climate in his community has improved since the state board declared a state of emergency at Spearman’s request.
“It’s all about the children, and somebody’s got to stand up for them and speak on their behalf,” he said.
In a statement to The Carolina Ledger, Spearman said—
“Teachers need strong leadership from capable principals, who in turn need consistent direction and feedback from district superintendents. Good leaders in the district office and in schools are able to create a very supportive climate for teachers. This means ongoing, meaningful professional development, consistent feedback on teaching methods through effective teacher evaluation, and ensuring a visible presence in the school and community by both principals and superintendents.”
Spearman credited educators and business partners, who together created this Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. The profile includes a set of life skills and a knowledge base including, languages, sciences, technology, engineering, math, arts and social sciences.
“By having a common vision of the career skills and knowledge we’d like to see in our high-school seniors, regardless of their chosen career paths, all of our teachers and school/district leaders have the same end goal in mind: to develop successful young men and women who can think critically, work in teams, solve problems, and become the next generation of leaders in our state and country,” she said.