(Jasper) Aug. 9, 2005 - There's been much made about school funding in South Carolina. It's a funding system that some say leads to gross inequities, and others say won't lead to more achievement, even if it's increased.
Sometimes it gets pretty tough for Sandra Burton, "I usually try and handle things and be strong, but one day when the sewer backed up, it was really awful that particular time. I myself became emotional. So I had to shut myself in the office and get myself back together, so I could come back out."
What's happening inside Ridgeland Elementary in Jasper County is a result of what's happening throughout Jasper County.
Dilapidated houses sit in many neighborhoods and many stores sit empty, signs of a struggling economy according to Bud Ferillo, a filmmaker who's studied the plight of poor, rural school districts, "The coastal counties enjoy a rich property tax base, based on the infusion of funds from million dollar homes, hotels, restaurants."
Jasper County doesn't have many of those things and the population is more sparse in rural areas, so it's tougher to generate as much in property taxes as many suburban counties.
Since local property tax money is mainly what's used to build new schools and make repairs, many rural schools can't afford to make many renovations, much less build new schools.
About 40 percent of school funding comes from property taxes and eight percent from the federal government. Fifty-two percent comes from the state.
That's the chunk many rural districts don't think is distributed fairly. So they're suing, 36 schools are suing South Carolina, saying the funding system is not only unfair, but unconstitutional.
Bobby Stepp disagrees. He represents the state, "This case is principally about throwing more money at a problem when money has been proven not to be a solution."
Of the ten highest spending districts in the state, six are part of the lawsuit. All ten spend considerably more than the average district in the state per pupil, but most of these districts routinely score below the state average on their district report card.
Steve Morrison is one of the attorneys representing the school districts. He concedes many of the plaintiff districts spend more, but argues they have to, "A poor child comes to school without the prospects from home that the wealthier child did. They have less reading material, less exposure to words and vocabulary, less exposure to travel and museums, less enrichment."
Morrison believes the poor, rural districts that are suing could improve if the state changed the way it generates revenue for schools, "If we want to take care of our children, we can't rely on property taxes as the primary vehicle because the property taxes are so different in terms of what you can get from revenue in the various geographies that you have."
Morrison thinks the state should look at redirecting taxes from commerce and industry.
For instance, right now millions of companies like BMV generate in property taxes for local schools stay in the Greenville School District. Morrison wants to see that money spread around to poor, rural districts.
Bobby Stepp thinks there's a better way to ensure achievement, "The best way to get achievement is under the system we currently have, the education accountability act. High standards in other states that have adopted programs like our EAA have seen pretty dramatic increases in achievement. Not because they spend more, but because they establish very high, rigorous standards."
Back at Ridgeland Elementary in Jasper, the principal promises to keep working to meet those standards, but wants someone to promise to keep sewage out of her school, "That should not be happening. It should not and it's totally unacceptable."
There are many schools in South Carolina where funding isn't a problem, the facilities are state-of-the art, and most of the students routinely do well.
Reported by Craig Melvin