Give Every Child More than the Best Seat in the House (Chamber)

Last Updated: April 03, 2009

This article appeared in the March 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Editorial by
Dr. Rachel B. Tompkins
Rural School and Community Trust
February 24, 2009
Ty’Sheoma Bethea from rural Dillon, South Carolina, had the seat of honor next to First Lady Michelle Obama when the President recently addressed Congress. Her letter to Congress about her crumbling junior high school provided his closing quote, “We are not quitters.”
As the camera focused on her and her mother, I thought of several million children in rural schools across America who say the same thing, “We are not quitters,” and, who also lament, “Why have so many people quit on us?”
Why is it so hard for them? Why must they, their parents, and teachers be heroic just to get what every child deserves—a high-quality education in a well-built and maintained school in the community in which they live?
In the poorest 800 rural school districts, there are almost 1,000,000 students—24% African American; 20% Hispanic; 10% Native American. More than 70% qualify for free and reduced meals, more than in Philadelphia or Detroit. Ninety percent of these students live south of the Mason Dixon Line from North Carolina to California.
Many attend crumbling schools like Ty’Sheoma’s JV Martin Junior High School. They are shortchanged by state school financing systems. And, they are left behind by federal funding policy that is supposed to provide equal opportunities for all children.
President Obama knows about JV Martin because rural people in South Carolina went to court and sued the state to correct inadequate and inequitable funding schemes. To educate the public, a filmmaker produced a documentary on the condition of schools along I-95 calling it the “Corridor of Shame.” During the presidential campaign, Congressman James Clyburn (D-6-SC) brought this disgrace to Mr. Obama’s attention.
To date, the only relief from the court is an order to create more early childhood opportunities, which the state has woefully underfunded. The districts appealed the decision. The state’s pathetic defense is that poor children, despite all evidence to the contrary, cannot learn no matter what resources are provided. A decision is expected soon.
The stark reality in South Carolina is that unequal funding for rural districts with limited property wealth translates into significant differences in funding for schools. For example, huge disparities in teacher pay, as much as $8,000 between districts, means poorer districts cannot compete for teachers and are too often forced to rely on teachers not prepared in their assigned subjects. Quality teaching is directly tied to student achievement, so funding inequities are educational inequities.
Unfortunately, the stimulus package reinforces similar inequities.
For example, the $39.5 billion for school fiscal stabilization must be used first to replace cuts in education state aid. This will soak up most of it. With what is left, local school officials may—but are not required to—use funds for modernization, renovation, or repair of public school facilities. It is unlikely that many schools, including those in the “Corridor of Shame,” where the list of needed renovations is long, will benefit from this stimulus provision.
Perhaps an even more significant problem is that another $13 billion in the stimulus is to be distributed through formulas used to allocate federal Title I funds for the education of disadvantaged students.
These formulas use a system that “weights” student counts according to the absolute number of disadvantaged students not just the percentage of disadvantaged students. This often has the perverse effect of sending more money per poor pupil to large districts with lower poverty rates than to smaller districts with higher poverty rates.
Ty’Sheoma’s Dillon school district, for example, has a poverty rate that is double that of the one of the largest districts in South Carolina, Greenville County. But it gets 34% less Title I money per poor student. The same unfair story can be told in every state.
Rural people understand they must do their part. In Dillon, residents passed a tax increase that will enable them to replace JV Martin. But the state and federal government need to do their part as well.
Local people understand court battles rarely help solve inequitable funding issues. Rural activists are organizing for a long haul fight defending their children and communities. The South Carolina Rural Education Grassroots Group, including a representative from Dillon, focuses on issues of facilities, low graduation rates, and school quality.
For the President to be serious about helping students like Ty’Sheoma, he must:
  • Fix the Title I formulas;
  • Continue to invest federal dollars in school construction and target it to communities with the greatest need and fewest resources;
  • Insist states meet their constitutional mandates to provide adequate and equitable state funding. 
I have little doubt that Ty’Sheoma Bethea will succeed. She isn’t a quitter! Others will succeed despite inadequate support. But children in small towns and rural communities deserve their fair share of education resources. All children should get a lot more than the best seat in the House and a favored quote. They should realize the promise of good schools and good teachers.

Read more from the March 2009 Rural Policy Matters.