Rural South Carolina school districts remain very poor after 2 decades

In the 21 years it took for poor, rural school districts to fight the state government in court for more adequate funding, South Carolina saw five governors, four education superintendents and three U.S. presidents.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same in rural South Carolina.

While the Abbeville County School District v. the State of South Carolina case bounced around courtrooms for more than two decades, some of the rural counties that banded together against the state grew poorer with stagnant population growth. The progress they did make in education trailed significantly behind other South Carolina counties and the nation, a McClatchy analysis of federal census data found.

“For these counties who were struggling 20 years ago, they’re still struggling now and have been struggling a lot more than the rest of the state,” said Melissa Strompolis of Children’s Trust of South Carolina, a nonprofit that tracks child and family issues in the state.

In November 1993, 40 school districts sued the state government, alleging the state was underfunding poor, rural districts and failing to provide an adequate education to all South Carolina children. The state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school districts just this month.

Superintendent Ray Rogers of the Dillon County Four school district says he’s the one of the few working superintendents left from the beginning of the case. During those years, he says, life in his rural school district has “probably gotten worse.”

“There’s got to be some formula that will help these poverty areas to play on a level playing field with the other school districts,” Rogers said.

Most of the original school districts in the case lie in what the federal government classifies as persistent poverty counties, where the poverty rate has exceeded 20 percent of the population for three decades.

The plaintiffs were narrowed down in 1999 to a list of eight school districts: Allendale, Dillon 4, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3. All but Florence 4 are in persistent poverty counties.

From 1993 to 2012, the poverty rates in Dillon, Lee, Marion and Orangeburg all dropped slightly. But those four counties still have more than a quarter of their populations living in poverty.

The poverty rates spiked in Allendale, Hampton and Jasper counties over the same period. Allendale’s poverty rate hopped the most dramatically. With a poverty rate of 41 percent of its population, Allendale is South Carolina’s poorest county.

Rogers said his Dillon district has long struggled with aging and decrepit facilities. He said a middle school built in 1896 stayed in his district until a new one opened in 2012.

“These people just don’t have the money to do all the construction that needs to be done,” Rogers said.

“So we suffer,” he said.

The poverty rates for children fared worse over the same period. The rates for child poverty dropped slightly in Florence and Lee counties, but hopped in all other plaintiff counties. By 2012, more than half of Allendale County’s children lived in poverty.

“For many families who live in high-poverty communities or rural areas, a lot of community resources just aren’t available,” Strompolis said.

Rogers said poor, rural areas like his Dillon County district have long struggled to attract professionals, including new teachers. He said people have moved out of Dillon County due to the lack of jobs.

“You can’t get the best and brightest to come to those areas that are so poverty-stricken,” Rogers said. “There’s just nothing there for them.”

While some areas of South Carolina have seen their populations explode in the past two decades, the populations of some plaintiff counties declined or remained stagnant during the lifespan of the Abbeville court case.

The population of Allendale County dropped 16 percent, from 11,722 people in 1990 to 9,839 in 2013, according to U.S. census data and estimates. Lee and Marion counties grew in the 1990s but then lost some of their populations after 2000. Dillon County remained relatively stable at around 31,000 people.

Florence, Jasper and Orangeburg counties, however, did grow noticeably.

Since 1990, much like the rest of the country, the population of rural South Carolina grew more educated as more people completed high school. In fact, the percentage of the population without a high school diploma dropped in all 46 South Carolina counties between 1990 and 2012.

But rural, poor counties in the lawsuit did not see the same progress as the rest of the country.

The national and state percentage of the population with a college degree grew about 8 points on average during that period. Some urban counties, like York and Charleston, saw double-digit percentage point spikes in their college-educated population.

But most counties involved in the lawsuit were well below the average. Dillon was the only county in South Carolina that saw its college-educated portion of the population drop.

“When you have an educated workforce, you’re more likely to have companies who are likely to locate there,” said Sue Williams, the CEO for the Children’s Trust of South Carolina.

However, Rogers said he thinks the Abbeville court ruling is a mandate that the children in the rural parts of the state no longer be left behind.

“We’re hoping for the next 21 years things will be different for the kids that are coming into the rural and the poverty-stricken areas in South Carolina.”