It did not take Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto long to set the tone at the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast this past week.
The Democratic lawmaker opened with a message aimed primarily at the Republican leadership in the Legislature about education in South Carolina’s rural and poorest school districts.
“We’re not going to fix Orangeburg until we fix our education,” Hutto said. “Not all of our students are getting the quality education that they need.”
Hutto said Orangeburg County has made strides in economic development, but “it’s not going to continue if we don’t have a pipeline of educated students to fill those jobs.”
And this is not just an Orangeburg County issue but a South Carolina issue.
“Until we realize that as a whole, that they’re all our children, it doesn’t matter if they’re born in Allendale or Orangeburg, Rock Hill or Summerville,” he said. “The quality of the education is determined by where they’re born and that’s not right and that’s not fair.”
Hutto said the state’s budgets prove his point: “We are not prioritizing education.”
The message was echoed by other members of the legislative delegation, with Rep. Russell Ott of Calhoun County citing his House district as an example.
River Bluff High School in Lexington School District 1 looks like “a brand new college campus,” he said. By contrast, his alma mater Swansea High school in rural Lexington 4 “has buildings that are falling apart.”
The Legislature is under order to address such disparities in rural South Carolina, with the Supreme Court mandating in the “Abbeville case” that education in rural districts such as those along the Interstate 95 corridor be improved. The ruling grew from a lawsuit by 40 rural districts in 1993 alleging that the state was not providing the constitutionally required “minimally adequate” education to all students.
In the three years since the decision, lawmakers have vowed to address the Abbeville ruling. Some actions have been taken regarding teacher pay and improving infrastructure, but major inequities remain.
Ott said, “If we’re going to ultimately improve education in South Carolina, we are going to have to convince folks all across the state to move away from this protectionism type of mentality that we have ingrained in our system to only look out for ourselves.”
And Hutto said it’s going to take leadership from the state and “from a governor who cares about education, who makes us focus on education.”
On Monday, Henry McMaster said he is a governor who cares.
The Republican met in Holly Hill with leadership of Orangeburg County Consolidated School District 3, one of the Abbeville plaintiffs, and visited school facilities as the first stop on what he is calling a tour of districts affected by the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling.
At Holly Hill-Roberts Middle School, the governor said, “I want to understand deeply what we are facing in the future with our workforce and the people who are going to be in it. We have enormous opportunity coming our way in economic growth. But if we’re not ready, if we’re not educated and trained for these jobs, we can miss it.”
McMaster said, “If the rural areas get behind, all of us get behind.”
Rural areas are behind and addressing that is what the Abbeville ruling is all about. The governor’s support will be important.
But as lawmakers warned during the chamber breakfast, the 2018 legislative session falls in an election year – one in which McMaster is seeking a full term as governor. History indicates that is not good for major accomplishments, particularly when they involve significant expenditures.
Here’s hoping 2018 will be an exception for education.