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

The stimulus package
reinforces in equities.

by Dr. Rachel B. Tompkins

TyâSheoma 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, âWe are not quitters.â

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,
âWe are not quitters,â and, who also lament,
âWhy have so many people quit on us?â

Why is it so hard for them? Why must they,
their parents, and teachers be heroic just to
get what every child deservesâa 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 studentsâ24% 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

Many attend crumbling schools like TyâSheomaâs
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 âCorridor of Shame.â During the
presidential campaign, Congressman James
Clyburn (D-6-SC) brought this disgrace to Mr.
Obamaâs 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 stateâs 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 mayâbut are not required toâ
use funds for modernization, renovation, or
repair of public school facilities. It is
unlikely that many schools, including those in
the âCorridor of Shame,â 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 âweightsâ
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.

TyâSheomaâs 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 TyâSheoma, he must:

  • Fix the Title I formulas;

  • 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 TyâSheoma Bethea will
    succeed. She isnât 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.

    — Dr. Rachel B. Tompkins
    Rural Policy Matters


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