Conservative politics as a very thin veneer for racism and class warfare has long characterized the South, including South Carolina, regardless of party affiliation—once Democratic and now the same sort of recalcitrant Republican.
Strom Thurmond personified this ugly fact of my home state—him a brash racist and among the now seemingly endless line of powerful white men who also viewed and treated women as subhuman as well. The current disaster of Roy Moore stands as yet more of that same, embodying a crass blend of political, judicial, and morally bankrupt popular in the South, the Bible Belt.
The twenty-first century, regretfully, has not exorcised these ghosts in the machine, as SC remains nearly a cartoon version of Southern stereotypes.
SC public schools (and public universities, in fact) exist in 2017 as a bold middle finger to everything promised by a democratic nation. But despite the political rhetoric, SC has failed its public schools; public schools have not failed our state, whose political leaders care none at all about poor, black, or brown children being currently (and historically) mis-served by K-12 education.
Political negligence of public schools—or more accurately, negligence of public schools that serve the most vulnerable children and communities in the state—is one of the perverse traditions that defines SC.
That tradition has a willing accomplice in the judicial negligence of the state as well. Cindi Scoppe explains:
In the three years since the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had to provide a decent education to all children, one justice wrote in this month’s final chapter of the quarter-century-old school adequacy case, “we have had the benefit of seeing the defendants make steady progress toward remedying their failure to provide our state’s children with a minimally adequate education.”
Particularly encouraging, he wrote, is the fact that the state has “recently come to realize that merely pouring more money into an outmoded system will not lead to success.”
Popularized as the Corridor of Shame, political and judicial negligence actually thrives in pockets all over SC, not just along the I-95 corridor that does in many ways bisect the more affluent midlands and upper state from the crippling rural poverty dominating much of the lower state except for pockets of affluence in coastal havens for the wealthy and the riches of tourism.
The conservative ideology driving political negligence has withstood the slow drag of the courts in SC, which has now fallen lockstep into that same sterile argument about “pouring more money into an outmoded system”—as if SC has even flooded public institutions with money.
Political and judicial negligence in SC—a microcosm of the same negligence nationally—remains entrenched in commitments to ideology over evidence, hard truths neither political leadership nor judicial pronouncements will admit.
First, and foremost, one hard truth is that public schools in SC are mostly labeled failures or successes based on the coincidence of what communities and students those schools serve. Schools serving affluent (and mostly white) communities and students are framed as “good” schools while schools serving poor (and often black and brown while also over-serving English language learners and students with special needs) communities and students are framed as “bad” or “failing.”
This political lie is grounded in the three-decades political charade called education reform—a bureaucratic nightmare committed to accountability, standards, and testing as well as a false promise that in-school only reform could somehow overcome the negative consequences of social inequity driven by systemic racism, classism, and sexism.
The ironic and cruel lesson of education reform has been that education is not the great equalizer.
Education reform is nothing more than a conservative political fetish, a gross good-ol’-boy system of lies and deception.
Second, and in most ways secondary, another hard truth is that while education is not the great equalizer, public schooling tends to reflect and then perpetuate the inequities that burden the lives of vulnerable children.
In-school only reform driven by accountability, standards, and testing fails by being both in-school only (no education reform will rise about an absence of social/policy reform that addresses racism and poverty) and mechanisms of inequity themselves.
Affluent and white students are apt to experience a higher quality of formal schooling than black, brown, and poor students, who tend to be tracked early and often into reduced conditions that include test-prep, “basic” courses, and teachers who are early career and often un-/under-certified.
Nested in this hard truth is that much of accountability-based education reform depends on high-stakes standardized testing, which is itself a deeply flawed and biased instrument. Tests allow political negligence since data appear to be objective and scientific; in fact, standardized testing remains race, class, and gender biased.
Like school quality, test scores are mostly a reflection of non-academic factors.
Ultimately, SC’s children and then the state itself are being cheated by a failure to admit hard truths. I agree, then, with the big picture conclusion drawn by Scoppe:
It was never clear to me whether our constitution requires the state to provide a good education to all children, or simply to operate public schools. What was always more than clear was that it is the job of the Legislature to provide an education to every child in this state. And that it is insane — and morally indefensible — not to provide a decent education to all children. What was always more than clear was that it is up to the Legislature not only to provide the funding but also, as Justices Beatty and Toal and Kay Hearn always emphasized, to make sure the districts are organized appropriately and school officials have the right powers and duties and we have the right laws about what is taught and how it is taught and that the problems are corrected when the schools don’t deliver.
This is a moral imperative about children, about human dignity and agency.
Let me end with the ignored but obvious hard truth: Education funding matters, but doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is insanity.
Millions and millions of tax dollars in SC have been squandered on ever-new standards and ever-new tests; where is the political and judicial rhetoric about that? SC for decades now has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on school report card that have accomplished nothing except demonizing schools that happen to serve poor and black/brown children.
SC must seek instead the political will to implement first social policy that addresses the scar of poverty and racism in our state. Concurrent with that, education reform must end its affair with accountability and begin a journey committed to education equity.
Our children deserve more than the accidents of their births, and then, as a people, we owe every child an equitable and challenging education that invites them into an honest attempt at democracy and freedom.
Political and judicial negligence is inexcusable, but remains a SC tradition.