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Some surprises in rural S.C. education

Posted: June 3, 2014 10:49 a.m.
Updated: June 4, 2014 5:00 a.m.

A regular reader of these weekly columns recent noted that it seems like many of my columns are based on a review of a national study that looks at conditions in each of the 50 states about such things as health, education, job creation, etc. She is right, and there is a reason for this.

Unfortunately, our state’s politics and general civic dialogue has become very ideological and divisive. Each side seems to have already decided their position on issues based on a rigid ideology or preconceived prejudice -- and the old saying, “I know what I think, don’t try and confuse me with the facts,” seems to apply double to South Carolina.

So my friend is right; many of these columns are about studies and scholarly analysis of issues and problems facing our state, as I’m convinced we need more facts and less ideology in our politics. No one study tells the whole story and there are, of course, both objective and biased studies; but if we are going to try and figure out creative solutions to solve our state’s problems, then it makes sense to at least start with some facts as opposed to just knee-jerk partisan rhetoric.

One such recent study that fascinated me is Why Rural Matters: the Condition of Rural Education in the 50 States, by the highly respected Rural and Community School Trust. They have been doing these studies every two years for the last 14 years; they measure 24 separate indicators organized into five gauges and then crunch all the numbers for each of the 50 states and see what comes out.

Some of what they found for South Carolina was predictable but some was not -- so let’s dive in.

Rural Schools: In the Palmetto state, about 40 percent of our students attend rural schools, one of the largest percentages in the county. The national average is 20 percent and S.C. ranks fifth of the 50 states. In short, rural education is a big deal in our state and an important factor in the overall education of our state’s children.

Priority Ranking: One of the most important measures of how a state deals with rural education is the study’s Rural Education Priority Ranking. It measures the actions of each state to determine if the state treats rural education as “both important and in urgent need of attention.” By this overall scale, S.C. ranks fourth. In short, the study found we are taking the needs of rural education seriously as compared to other states. Encouraging and somewhat surprising.

Diversity: Nationwide, 26 percent of rural students are children of color. In S.C., this number is 40 percent and ranks us ninth in the country and these numbers are fairly stable. However, when it comes to the growth of Hispanic students, the numbers are surprisingly high. The growth of Hispanic students in our state over the last 10 years has been a whopping 446 percent percent and ranks us third in the nation with the fastest growing increase. Though this number is huge, it’s a bit deceptive, as 10 years ago the absolute number of Hispanic students was relatively small, so the growth numbers look big -- but still, this increase is huge and the implications for bilingual education in our state are big.

Growth of Rural Schools: The statistics in this category may surprise you. We have this stereotypical idea that the rural areas are dying but in our state, over the last 10 years, the percentage of students in rural schools has increased by 16 percent while nationally this number is only 2 percent. We rank second in this category nationally.

Funding: Not surprisingly, the study found that rural schools get less than their fair share of education dollars, but not by much. While rural students comprise 40 percnet of the total number of students, they get 36 percent of the total funding. In the U.S., the amount spent on school instructions per student in the rural areas is $5,657; in S.C. it is only slightly lower at $5,238 and ranks us 33rd.

Rural Schools and Poverty: In the nation as a whole, 41 percent of rural public school students’ family income is such that they are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. In S.C., this number is 57 percent and ranks us sixth in the country.

Teacher Pay: Here is another one in the surprising category. In South Carolina, the average pay for instructional staff in rural schools is $60,376, compared to a national average of $56,159. This ranks us 15th overall. Pretty impressive.

Educational Outcomes: The most surprising, if not downright shocking, were the findings of the report about test scores. The study looked at math and reading scores for students in the fourth and eighth grades. Among rural school students in the fourth grade, we ranked 10th in math and ninth in reading. By eighth grade, these numbers had slipped a bit but were still surprisingly good: we were 14th in math scores and eighth in reading. This may be more of a sad comment on the rest of the nation’s rural schools than an indication of success in South Carolina -- but it’s relatively good news nonetheless.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Rural education is hugely important to the future of our state and while we are doing OK in some areas, S.C.’s rural schools, like their urban and suburban counterparts, still have a long way to go.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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