The best way to make South Carolina prosper — to make it a place our children and grandchildren want to spend their lives, where businesses want to locate and expand and people from other states want to visit and make their own homes — is to make sure that children grow up to be productive citizens.
That's more likely when children have working parents whose jobs pay enough to provide them with stable homes, good nutrition and medical care, parents who read to them regularly and teach them the soft skills that prepare them to do well in schools that have enough good teachers to provide individual attention and encouragement.
And once again, a respected national report shows how badly we are failing to provide these foundational elements for children.
The annual Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks our state 39th in child well-being, based on 16 measures of economic well-being, education, health and family and community. The report shows that S.C. children are better off than they were in 2010 — with the portion living in poverty dropping from 26 percent to 23 percent in 2017, for example, the number not graduating from high school on time dropping from 26 percent to 16 percent and the number of teen births dropping from 43 per 1,000 to 22. But the portion of 3- and 4-year-olds not in pre-school increased from 50 percent to 53 percent, and the portion of eighth-graders not proficient in math increased from 70 percent to 74 percent.
And once again, there's that chicken-and egg question: Are children poorly educated because of poverty, or are their parents poor because of their own lack of education? Is the economy struggling in so many communities because of failures in our education system, or are those failures the result of the job market and the parents' poverty?
The short answer, based on years of research and reams of data and reinforced by the latest Kids Count report, is: Yes.
Whatever the original factor, it occurred so long ago that it hardly matters today. Too many children in too many communities, counties and entire regions of South Carolina are living in a vicious cycle of poor education that begets poverty that begets communitywide economic failure that begets poor education and on and on.
We have to break that cycle by attacking all the causes: By dramatically improving the education we provide to children in all parts of the state, creating an attractive workforce for employers. By taking creative new steps to attract good jobs (or, in some cases, any jobs) to areas that lack them. By providing better job training to adults who were failed by our education system. By intervening earlier to help children whose parents aren't equipped to prepare them for a lifetime of learning.
Gov. Henry McMaster and state legislators have begun focusing on that "attack all causes" approach, making investments in school infrastructure in the poorest communities a part of economic recruitment efforts, expanding tax credits available for new jobs in those communities and starting work on education improvements statewide. But this is only a beginning.
This year's modest education reforms haven't yet passed the Senate. Lawmakers still face the task of overhauling an education funding system that doesn't always send money where it's needed the most. And there will be more work after that. It took us generations to get where we are today. It will take years of commitment to get us to that place where all children get an education and support that turns them into productive citizens — and transforms our state into the amazing place it has the potential to be.