With school funding legal fight over, S.C. looks to reverse downward trends

A group of South Carolina school districts recently won a two-decade legal battle over disparate differences in school funding and quality within the Palmetto State.

Yet, while the Abbeville County School District v. the State of South Carolina case bounced around state courtrooms for 21 years, the gap between urban and rural South Carolina counties grew in several quality-of-life metrics.

As major cities in urban counties have grown in size and prosperity since the mid-1990s, South Carolina’s rural counties saw worrying trends of more entrenched poverty and stagnant population growth, a McClatchy analysis of federal census and poverty data found.

Dillon 4 Superintendent D. Ray Rogers, who served in the Dillon County school district when the case began in 1993, says life got worse for many people in rural South Carolina during the case’s lifetime.

“Finally, after 21 years, the courts have seen what we’ve lived with daily,” Rogers said. “We just don’t have the money to generate taxes to pay for the schools like larger metropolitan areas.”

In November 1993, forty 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 earlier this month.

Most of the original 40 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.

About 85 percent of all persistent poverty counties nationwide are rural. All but one of South Carolina’s 12 persistent poverty counties is rural. The exception is Jasper County.

“We’re not sure if those disparities would have remained the same or gotten worse if it hadn’t been because of the recession,” said Melissa Strompolis of Children’s Trust of South Carolina, a non-profit that tracks child and family issues in the state.

“But we know that regardless of the recession, those disparities have been there and they’re still here today,” she said.

Rates of childhood poverty grew worse in all but one, Lee, persistent poverty county in the state. However, three of South Carolina’s five most populous urban counties also saw their rates go up.

Despite a slight growth in South Carolina’s rural population, 94 percent of the state’s total population growth between 1990 and 2013 has been in urban counties or areas, according to the Economic Research Service.

Greenville, Horry, Richland, York and Lexington counties were the drivers of that growth, each adding more than 100,000 people during that time period, according to U.S. census data.

In a stark contrast, some counties lost noticeable portions of their population. Tiny Allendale County saw its population drop 16 percent. Williamsburg County’s fell by 10 percent.

Rogers said some counties, including Dillon County, suffered when large textile mills left.

Sue Williams, the executive director of the Children’s Trust of South Carolina, said that could hurt an area’s unemployment rate and population.

“Those large companies left and there was not an ability to replace them,” Williams said.

South Carolina, as a whole, has grown more educated since the 1990s. In fact, the percentage of the population without a high school diploma dropped in all 46 counties from 1990 to 2012.

But the gap in the college educated population has grown. In 1990, about 18 percent of urban South Carolinians had a college degree compared to 11 percent of rural county residents. Now, 26 percent of urban residents had a college degree compared to 16 percent of rural residents.

The urban-rural divide along health care has also evolved over the past two decades.

Graham Adams, CEO of the South Carolina Office for Rural Health, said more rural communities have access to a physician now than in years past.

“I think our state has done a good job of placing health care providers into under-served communities,” said Adams, who has been with the office since the mid-1990s.

However, Adams said many rural areas are still using hospital facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s. He said facilities that old are rare in urban areas.

“In rural communities, at least in South Carolina, that is the norm,” he said.

Rogers also said there was another disparity: a political one. He said the rural counties lacked the influence in the state legislature to secure better funding for their schools.

“We’re tried to talk to all the (state legislators) but the ones that represent us here don’t have enough votes in Columbia to make a difference,” he said.

Rogers said this encouraged the school districts to sue the state government back in 1993.

“We fought the fight because we knew we were being neglected,” he said.

With the lawsuit finally over, Rogers hopes help is on the way for parts of the state that have long struggled while other areas have soared.

“It’s a mandate that something good is going to happen to the kids, teachers and administrators in years to come,” Rogers said.