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US Education Secretary DeVos applauds SC school improvement

February 21, 2019
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seated, tours a technical college in Florence, S.C., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, with state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, left, and Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, right. DeVos made a trip to the state to visit an area once known as the “Corridor of Shame” where officials say dramatic improvements have been made in schools since state officials took over their control last year. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

TIMMONSVILLE, S.C. (AP) — During a trip to what’s been called the “Corridor of Shame,” an area that for years has been home to some of South Carolina’s most underperforming school districts, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Thursday that she’s impressed with developments after intervention from state officials.

“I applaud the direction that the school and the district have taken to really meet the needs of individual students and to be willing to meet those needs,” the nation’s top education official said after a tour of a technical school in Florence.

Accompanied by State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, DeVos’ visit comes amid ongoing debate about how to improve South Carolina’s education system, with legislative leaders and the governor saying they’re placing a priority on the issue this session. On Thursday, a House subcommittee unanimously voted to send an education overhaul bill to the full Education Committee.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who has asked officials for a study of the decades-old formula that determines how districts are funded, pledged in his State of the State address last month that “the words ‘Corridor of Shame’ will be a distant memory,” recalling the phrase coined in a 2005 documentary that depicted decrepit conditions and deteriorating buildings.

The area for a time became a pilgrimage site of sorts for public officials as an example of the need to make reforms to the state’s schools. In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama toured a school, a portion of which was still in use and dated to the late 19th century.

Dozens of rural districts were part of a decades-old lawsuit over education funding. In a 1999 ruling, justices coined the phrase “minimally adequate education,” immediately bothering many people who thought South Carolina should aspire to being more than adequate at something as important as public education.

The state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2014 that rural schools had violated the South Carolina Constitution by failing to provide each student with quality education, ultimately closed the case, ruling that officials had resolved the overarching dispute.

Some improvements in the area have come at the behest of the state Education Department, which in recent years has taken control of several districts in attempt to get them on firmer financial footing. On Thursday, DeVos said she was encouraged to see improvements like a more diverse curriculum that have come since last year, when Spearman declared a state of emergency in Florence School District Four and took over its management.

“The course correction that’s been made has been terrific,” DeVos said.

Officials say administrative costs in the district had been more than $1.2 million annually. By sharing some services with neighboring districts, state officials say they’ve saved over $600,000 in the struggling district’s budget. Officials are hopeful that educational successes will continue to grow once the district is on surer financial footing.

In a sprawling complex of buildings that houses several Florence Four schools, DeVos and the other officials spent time with students in several classrooms and observed a demonstration of the drone club in the gymnasium. Bryan McFadden, a Timmonsville High School senior whose older siblings have already graduated, said he knows he’s getting opportunities that weren’t available to them in years past.

“There’s certainly more stuff that they offer now,” said McFadden, who will be able to get his drone certification by the time he graduates. “I never thought that my senior year I’d be in the drone club.”

“There are so many things that I didn’t think about when I was in school,” Evette said. “You know more than just how to fly it. You know how it works.”

“We didn’t have drones,” DeVos added, with a laugh.

Thanking DeVos for bringing attention not just to the state’s struggles but also its efforts to improve, Spearman said she’s optimistic South Carolina’s education system will keep making strides, although the process will be a tough one.

“We have a great need, but we have great potential,” Spearman said. “We’re willing to put extra money in areas that are willing to collaborate.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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