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In South Carolina, Moving Beyond “Minimally Adequate” Schools

A newspaper’s blistering exposé of South Carolina schools has residents facing up to their state’s failing education system. Longtime advocates are seizing the opportunity to bring meaningful, widespread change.

June 4, 2019

Leah Fabel

Leah Fabel

Toward the end of last year, Charleston, South Carolina’s major newspaper, the Post and Courier, published a five-part series called “Minimally Adequate.” The title references the underwhelming legal standard for public schools set in 1999 by the state’s highest court: The state Legislature must afford all students a “minimally adequate” education.

The series, which called out leaders for making no meaningful education reforms since the 1980s, laid out in unsparing detail the brokenness of its public school system. And while none of it was really news to dedicated education advocates, many of them seized the opportunity to raise public consciousness and make some noise.

LaTisha Vaughn is the director of networks and community engagement for the Charleston-based Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative and a board member for Teach For America South Carolina. In the wake of the series, she has had dozens of conversations with people feeling dissatisfied with the educational status quo—parents, advocates, librarians, local volunteers. They’re coming to the table energized by what looks like an opportunity to push for change, she says. “They’re saying, ‘We’re not satisfied, and we’ve got to figure out something to do.’”

For people in cities where educational inequity has long been front-page news, that may not sound like the start of much. But Vaughn and others, like first-term state legislator Kambrell Garvin (South Carolina ’13), are the first to say that in South Carolina, tides turn slowly. That’s all the more reason, they say, to pay attention. And to grab hold when the moment strikes.

So just what did the series expose that hit so hard? That more than half of South Carolina students in grades three through eight fail to meet the state’s reading and math standards, even as the standards have been judged to be weak in comparison with other states. On ACT college entrance exams, about 1 in 3 white students meet college-ready benchmarks in at least three of the test’s four subject areas. Only 1 in 20 Black students do. The paper reminded readers that achievement still lags at schools that were significantly underfunded during the Jim Crow era, sometimes receiving less than a quarter of the per-pupil budget white schools in the same districts received.

The harshest criticisms called out state leaders for chronically underfunding their own education mandates. In 2014, the state Supreme Court concluded a 24-year legal battle, Abbeville v. South Carolina, by ordering the Legislature to overhaul a “fractured” funding formula that perpetuated historical disparities, particularly affecting poor, rural districts. Still, nothing changed until 2017, when a newly conservative court vacated the decision. “Lawmakers essentially remade the court rather than the education system,” the newspaper said.

Reaction to the series wasn’t limited to Charleston. In the city of Greenville, 200 miles away, Ansel Sanders (Baltimore ’04) said the reverberations from the coverage created a “momentum, energy, and urgency around education that has not been felt for more than 30 years.”

More than 400 people showed up to a town hall meeting in Greenville to discuss the series. At that event, Sanders talked about how Greenville County Schools, the state’s largest district, could potentially stanch a teacher shortage by paying teachers a higher starting salary than the district’s base of $36,320. He described how legislators could reconsider testing mandates to advance student achievement and give teachers more room for creativity and autonomy.

Sanders is the president and CEO of Public Education Partners, a local nonprofit supporting educational excellence. One of his goals is to make Greenville “the Silicon Valley of teachers”—a city where highly skilled educators want to live because of its supportive and innovative environment. But for that to happen, he says, “the momentum that came from the series now needs to be translated into action at the level of the policy and practitioner, ultimately for the students.”

In the wake of the series, state legislative leaders went to work on an education reform package that, for a while, seemed to pick up momentum amidst an energized debate. The challenge now, say Sanders and others, is to bring many more voices into the conversation and to keep the fervor for change alive.

Education advocates LaTisha Vaughn (in yellow) and Sherrie Snipes-Williams are working with community members to fuel momentum for educational change in neighborhoods like the Neck, connecting Charleston and North Charleston. Sean Rayford

The Post and Courier series was just the most recent in a succession of educational wake-up calls. In 2017, the College of Charleston published a report laying out massive bureaucratic obstacles faced by the city’s Black residents, including a lack of access to successful schools, “making it virtually impossible to break free of cycles of poverty, criminalization, and incarceration.”

A 2018 study, commissioned by the board of the Charleston County School District and completed by staff at Clemson University’s Division of Inclusion and Equity, blasted the district for running two parallel school systems for white and Black families. Recommendations to redraw school attendance zones are expected to be discussed by the school board during the 2019-20 school year.

Sherrie Snipes-Williams is a South Carolina native and the CEO of the Charleston Promise Neighborhood, a nonprofit dedicated to improving outcomes at four consistently low-performing schools in an area known as the Neck. It is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, providing kids and families in the area with wraparound supports starting at birth.

The lives of children in those schools have improved in some ways. They make fewer emergency room visits, their families flood school-based events, and students who go to after-school programs have made some academic gains. But overall, Snipes-Williams says, student outcomes have not budged; that’s been a wake-up call too.

“What I can tell you with clarity is our education system does not equitably educate all children, and Black and brown children are feeling the brunt of that,” Snipes-Williams says. “When you look at results over a decade, and nothing has changed, that tells us we’re OK with it, you know? Or that we need to do something drastically different.”

In addition to advocating for more equitable education funding, South Carolina Rep. Kambrell Garvin has supported bills to expand Medicaid and to inform the formerly incarcerated of their voting rights. Sean Rayford

Following the publication of “Minimally Adequate,” politicians responded swiftly, promising change. Jay Lucas, the Republican speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, presented an education overhaul bill to the House and called on the state’s revenue department to suggest a new and more equitable funding formula. Fellow politicians jumped on board, spurred by concerns from business leaders about an unprepared workforce.

Kambrell Garvin was one of the politicians who saw an opportunity crack open. Elected in 2018 to represent suburban Columbia as a Democrat in the House of Representatives, Garvin got his start in political organizing when he was 10 years old. He spearheaded a voter registration drive in his hometown of Columbia, the state capital. When he got to college at Winthrop University, he served as president of the NAACP South Carolina Youth & College Division, leading lobbying efforts at the state level for equitable education funding. He graduated from law school in May, serving in the Legislature during his final year there.

In March, as the House debated the state’s 2020 budget and education bills, Garvin fielded questions about the realities of the state’s public schools. He surprised some colleagues by describing challenges that are familiar to many teachers: His students lacked basic opportunities, like science fairs and field trips. With no breaks in his schedule, he had to find another teacher to watch his classroom so he could use the restroom. He and his teacher wife, Monique Patton Garvin (South Carolina ’14), had to pick up second jobs to make ends meet and begin to save. He also described how he personally experienced the difference between the resource-rich schools he attended as a student and the resource-poor rural schools where he taught. 

On the House floor, Garvin’s classroom stories resonated. The House version of the budget bill included a teacher bill of rights, promising each teacher a 30-minute planning period free of non-classroom duties. It incorporated a proposal to raise the starting teacher salary to $35,000 from $32,000 and to allot state money to spend on teacher-retention efforts and a 4% across-the-board raise for teachers.

Garvin didn’t agree with every part of the overhaul bill. He opposed, for one, a measure that would have made it easier for the state to hand control of failing schools to charter operators. But as a Democratic lawmaker in a state with a Republican legislative majority, he believes the best strategy to leverage systems-level change is to take pragmatic, small steps while feeding the momentum for more sizable shifts.

“Will things happen as fast as we want them to? No. Will we get everything we want? No. Are there some things in the bill that we pushed for? Yes,” he says. “That’s how we have to look at it as the minority party.”

At press time, a raise of at least 4% for teachers, and up to 10% for early-career teachers, was still included in the Senate’s budget bill for the upcoming fiscal year (the Legislature is required to pass a budget bill each year). And the raise in starting salaries to $35,000 was likely to stand.

But the education overhaul bill stalled out in the Senate, with legislators addressing none of the funding inequities raised in the Abbeville lawsuit. Nonetheless, Garvin remains hopeful that a new education bill will pass in 2020, an election year. “There’s too much pressure from the chamber [of commerce] and other outside influences for us not to do something,” he says.

On May 1, Garvin joined 10,000 teachers at the state Capitol for a walkout organized by SC for Ed, a teacher-led advocacy group that formed last year, unaffiliated with either of the state’s teacher unions. It now has 30,000 members. The walkout was billed as a “day of reflection,” to bring attention to demands for improved working conditions and a call for more school mental health counselors. It followed a similar protest in late January, when teachers took personal days to lobby lawmakers prior to the introduction of the House education bill.

For teachers to join forces—across districts, demographics, and political parties and views—could tip the balance in kids’ favor, Garvin says. “SC for Ed has been able to mobilize teachers in a way I haven’t seen in South Carolina in my lifetime.”

“Will things happen as fast as we want them to? No. Will we get everything we want? No. Are there some things in the bill that we pushed for? Yes.”

Rep. Kambrell Garvin

So where else do change advocates go to capitalize on the momentum generated by the “Minimally Adequate” series and other educational alarm bells?

In May, district leaders in Greenville picked up where the state fell off, motivated in part by Ansel Sanders’s work at Public Education Partners. Their 2019-20 proposals include bumping teachers’ starting salaries to $40,000, to be paid for by local tax increases. They promised teachers at least one 30-minute planning period, and to reduce some student-to-teacher ratios.

LaTisha Vaughn is looking to community first: A neighborhood activist is considering a run for the school board; another is interested in starting an Afrocentric charter school. Vaughn’s agency, the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, recently received a $150,000 grant to better prepare students for kindergarten by addressing systemic issues around equity and community engagement.

Since 2017, the local YWCA has hosted nearly 20 workshops led by the Racial Equity Institute, a North Carolina-based agency regarded nationwide for teaching people about racism and how to combat it. Some school district and law enforcement employees have attended the trainings, along with leaders of local businesses and non-profits. Sometimes, Vaughn says, to be in South Carolina can feel like “stepping back in time 50 years.” For leaders to be willing to have difficult conversations about race, she says, is a step forward.

Rep. Garvin say progress will come if citizens dig in for a marathon. His sharecropper great-grandparents didn’t go to school past the fifth grade. But his grandmother completed college. His mother earned a doctorate degree. And he serves in the same Statehouse where John Calhoun, slavery’s most stubborn defender, once served.

He does not see evidence that the majority of South Carolinians are ready to accept higher taxes or a reshuffling of school resources for the sake of all kids. But increasingly, he hears business leaders who want to invest in South Carolina, but complain that “when they hire folks, they don’t have the skills to take on their jobs.”

While many of his colleagues may not be persuaded by equity arguments, Garvin says, they’re more willing to act on behalf of economic progress. “That’s what has gotten them interested in education.” 

Featured image: South Carolina Rep. Kambrell Garvin. Photo by Sean Rayford.

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