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.
“When they (students) come to school they are not worried about learning their multiplication tables. They are worried about are they going to have a warm meal, is the power going to be cut off,” Burnette said.
Just as bad is the school building which stands near a busy railway line so that classes in one part of the facility have to stop six times a day when the trains roll through.
Water pours through the gym roof and the main auditorium was condemned before the school year started. Some 70 percent of the students are from ethnic minorities.
“I felt that our school was in bad condition. After the stimulus bill was passed I hoped we could get some of the money to rebuild the school,” Burnette said, referring to a $787 billion package passed by Congress to revive the economy.
Bethea wrote her letter at the local library and Burnette was so impressed she faxed it to the White House where it wound up on the president’s desk.
A few days later, Bethea found herself sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama as a special guest as Obama quoted from her speech before a joint session of Congress.
He used her presence to argue that the United States had to fund education because growth sectors in the economy need more highly skilled employees.
National celebrity has made Bethea, an African American, the school’s most famous student and, for the time being, the town’s best-known resident.
But attracting funds for the school remains problematic. A bond issue to raise the millions needed to update the building has lost half its value in the downturn, Burnette said.
Mayor Todd Davis said Bethea’s celebrity and publicity surrounding failing schools could actually deter investment.
“No company CEO is going to plant here because of the perception of the schools,” said Davis who said mismanagement, poor planning and too much bureaucracy had as much to do with the school’s woes as lack of funds.
South Carolina will receive $143 million in new funding for education under the stimulus act that grants $10 billion for education overall, according to a government estimate. Last year the state got $206 million in federal funding.
The state will focus on improving the worst schools, said state school superintendent Jim Rex. But he acknowledged that reviving failing schools was difficult and the impact of the stimulus unclear.
“What I‘m concerned about and people nationwide is not just the short-term needs to get this economy turned around but the longer-term need to create a workforce that can compete internationally,” said Rex.
Disparities in funding mean that teachers in wealthier counties close to Dillon where the local tax base is higher can earn up to $7,000 more per year. That gap makes it hard for poor counties to attract and retain experienced teachers.
There is no consensus on how to fix the problem.
Republican Governor Mark Sanford, who opposed Obama’s stimulus, would like to give parents school vouchers and tax credits and use competition to encourage schools to raise their standards rather than spending money on poor schools.
But 36 poorer school districts are pursuing a long-running law suit presently before South Carolina’s Supreme Court.
They say the state fails to offer all students a “minimally adequate education” because of a lack of funding. The state responds that South Carolina’s Constitution only requires a free education with no legal definition of quality or funding.
Nearly 90 percent of the children in those districts are from ethnic minorities, well above the state average, and most are from low income families.
A ruling is expected soon, but the debate will continue to rage long after Bethea has graduated.
Editing by Alan Elsner and Tom Brown