Not surprisingly, the voter turnout for the South Carolina primary elections on Tuesday was distressingly low.
The numbers are likely to fall far more in a runoff election for superintendent of education.
It’s one of two statewide contests left, in addition to the lieutenant governor’s race, but two Republicans and two Democrats will vie in separate primaries to determine the superintendent nominee for each party in the November general election.
All four candidates have public education backgrounds.
If there is any statewide interest in that race, it won’t be reflected in the turnout. That is especially unfortunate, as the eventual winner will set an agenda for the next four years.
Many state residents tend to be negative about public education. Are there serious issues regarding school districts and the schools within them? Of course.
Yet many people – even some parents among them – try to simplify a system that is extraordinarily complex.
We should ask each candidate how he or she would clarify that reality and how those issues can be approached.
Schools do not exist in a vacuum, but reflect their communities – such as the cities of Aiken and North Augusta and Aiken County as a whole.
The website About.com cites state demographics: Nearly 85 percent of the state’s schools qualify for federal Title I funds because of high poverty rates.
More than half of the students receive free or reduced lunch fees and cannot avoid bringing the needs of their families to school.
Almost eight percent have cognitive issues, mental health problems and other situations that require far more attention.
For one in 18 students, English is not his or her first language.
Surely, it’s apparent that such challenges and others will take years, even decades, for any significant headway. But that process still needs to start.
Which brings up the next question for the superintendent candidates: How does South Carolina pay for its schools and should that structure be fully explored?
While S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and the General Assembly have agreed to fund solutions for some significant programs in the current session, those allocations don’t begin to rectify years of neglect.
Decades ago, state lawmakers set up their own formula to provide funding for school districts on a per-pupil basis.
Ever since then, that method has been ignored.
Three to four years ago, the General Assembly was funding school systems at 1996 levels. Legislators have tried to deal with this issue, but still remain hundreds of dollars less per student in meeting the formula.
This, in large part, requires school districts to rely on tax revenues.
The Jasper, Williamsburg and Marion counties of South Carolina have been forced to raise taxes higher and higher in futile efforts to make ends meet.
The state of Georgia provides substantial funding for new school buildings. South Carolina school districts – Aiken County among them – get nothing for facilities from the General Assembly.
South Carolina residents should insist that the superintendent candidates go beyond the usual soundbites over the next few days. And then those residents should vote.