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COMMENTARY: Education: Crisis and beyond

COMMENTARY: Education: Crisis and beyond

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As president emeritus of Claflin University and a native of South Carolina, I am compelled to add my voice with many others advocating for educational excellence and equity even during the coronavirus pandemic.

I believe I have the requisite educational background and experience required to offer a reasoned and credible opinion in an effort to assist in addressing the well-documented educational inequities in the rural communities of South Carolina, particularly my hometown of Kingstree in Williamsburg County. I have devoted more than half a century to educational excellence, including four years as a certified mathematics teacher in the Philadelphia Public School System, mathematics teaching assistant at Dartmouth College, 20 years as professor of mathematics and academic administration at Delaware State University, and 25 years as president of Claflin University.

I have not only listened to the proclamations and declarations of our governor, the state superintendent of education and the Williamsburg County School District superintendent, but also listened to and spoken to legislative and community leaders, parents, grandparents and students who have experienced systemic inequality during the best of times. Today, I am hearing these same voices crying for help during this time of crisis.

Unfortunate but necessary, teachers are being asked during this transitional period to retool overnight to become proficient distance education instructors and coaches. Let us remember that these first-responders in our schools were stretched to the limit and faced enormous challenges during the best of times. Parents and grandparents are expected to perform the unthinkable during a time of great stress, including great uncertainty and mixed messages from all levels.

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Furthermore, school bus drivers are being asked to perform the professional tasks of certified social workers while delivering educational and food supplies to underserved communities. I observed that teachers, parents, grandparents and other service providers don’t know where to turn for assistance as the virus spreads unabatedly.

I’m afraid that nationally and in South Carolina, we’ve been again exposed. If he were alive today, Dr. Marin Luther King would ask, “When is genuine equality and true justice coming to America and South Carolina?”

In recent days, state and national media have presented “breaking news” about the disproportionate and devastating impact the coronavirus is having on our poorest communities. As it relates to these underserved communities, I believe we are facing a crisis that needs more immediate focus and attention.

Yes, this is not new news, but what is important now is that we have vigilant monitoring and accountability as to how the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package and subsequent economic response packages address disparities and educational inequities in these underserved communities.

At this time, as a minimum, I recommend that the state put in place, as soon as schools are reopened, a comprehensive and effective supplemental and remediation educational program for all. We must use every dollar and every day between now and the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in August to address inequities we all know exist.

We don’t need more committees, task forces or surveys to make the determination. Times such as these call for strong and courageous visionary leadership, decisive action and documented results. I believe year-round education is needed now as never before!

In South Carolina, we need a shared vision of educational excellence and a comprehensive educational plan that ensures that every child is guaranteed access to an excellent educational experience.

In 2014, after 21 years of contentious courtroom battles and legislative debate over the state’s responsibility to educate those who live in what became known as the “Corridor of Shame,” the South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a decision in the Abbeville-vs.-South Carolina lawsuit. The court concluded that the state had failed to provide what it calls a “minimally adequate” education for children in rural, poor counties and instructed the state to address the issue.

But during these years and even years to come, how many generations of poor children must pass through our schools without being guaranteed, not high-quality, but just minimally adequate education? Even though the law guarantees only a minimally adequate education, I say the time has come for South Carolina to join the 21st century regarding educational expectations for its children and all citizens. When is real change coming to South Carolina?

If not now, when?

Dr. Henry N. Tisdale is president emeritus of Claflin University.

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