Shy teen spotlights battle over failing schools

Thu Mar 5, 2009 7:44pm EST
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By Matthew Bigg

DILLON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A shy 14-year-old girl plucked from obscurity by the White House and given star treatment has come to symbolize a battle over how to fix dilapidated U.S. schools.

Ty'Sheoma Bethea's story proves that one small act -- in this case writing a letter to President Barack Obama -- can have a big impact.

It also highlights a battle over how far the federal government should fund U.S. education, which has traditionally been run by county school boards, and whether it should seek to redress discrepancies between rich and poor school districts.

The debate pits conservatives who advocate increased competition and choice as the best way to improve schools against others who say schools in poor neighborhoods have been drastically underfunded for decades.

Underlying the issue in many states is race: in South Carolina, many of the poorest school districts are majority black or Hispanic while the wealthier ones are mainly white.

Last month, Bethea took up an offer by the principal at J.V. Martin middle school, Amanda Burnette, to write to the White House about the middle school's woes.

The rural South Carolina school is in a town of 8,000 hard hit by the decline of textiles and farming where unemployment is more than double the national average and 85 percent of families at the school live below the poverty line.

Bethea's mother, a single mother, expects to lose her job as a welder soon when her company closes.   Continued...

<p>Ty'Sheoma Bethea sits in the school gym which is over seventy years old at J.V. Junior High School in Dillon, South Carolina, March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Tami Chappell</p>