For much of the state’s history, education was left principally to families. Nonetheless, while historically the state’s support of schooling has been hesitant, sporadic, and limited, the last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed growing attention to schools. By the end of the twentieth century, reform of South Carolina public schools had entered the forefront of political debate.
Reflecting the English roots of colonial South Carolina society, early education was centered in the home and church. For formal education wealthy, white families might hire tutors or send their children to private schools in Charleston. Education for crafts was provided through apprenticeships.
The first expressions of public support for “free schools” came in the early eighteenth century. Some individuals had bequeathed money for the purpose of supporting free schools. In 1712 “An Act for Founding and Erecting of a Free School in Charlestown” was passed, actually recognizing a school already established in Charleston under John Douglas, but also providing limited public funds for the support of free schools established in other parishes as well. Masters had to be Anglicans, and instruction was required “in Grammar, and other arts and sciences and useful learning, and also in the principles of the Christian religion.”
Free schools were operated for the children of poor whites who could not afford a private school or tutor. Organizations establishing such schools included the South Carolina Society, the Winyaw Indigo Society, the Mt. Zion Society, and the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The most long-lived of such schools was a manual training school established in the Abbeville District through a 1797 bequest by John de la Howe.
Educational opportunities for black South Carolinians were extremely limited. While the wives of masters might instruct favorite slaves in Christianity and the reading of the Bible—and occasionally black students received instruction in free schools, most notably at the school of the Reverend Alexander Garden in Charleston—most whites were skeptical of the value of educating blacks. Beginning in 1740 and continuing throughout the colonial and antebellum periods, the South Carolina legislature passed statutes limiting the teaching of writing and reading to slaves and free blacks. Despite these laws, schools for free blacks supported by religious and fraternal organizations survived in Charleston during the antebellum period.
Throughout the colonial period and beyond, private education remained the norm. Tuition-charging academies were the mainstay of secondary education. Notable schools included the Mt. Bethel Academy in Newberry, Moses Waddel’s Willington Academy in Abbeville District, and Madame Ann Mason Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston. Other private academies sprang up throughout the state, sometimes with limited state support. The curricula of these schools tended to the classics, Greek, Latin, and mathematics but varied according to the gender of the students. One female academy in Columbia, for example, offered a course of study that included belles lettres, French, music, drawing, and plain and ornamental needlework. There were 117 academies in the state by 1840 and more than 200 in 1860. An 1850 act provided support for the establishment of military schools in Anderson, Marion, and Spartanburg.
In 1811 the General Assembly passed a new free school act authorizing the establishment of schools in each district equal to its number of representatives in the legislature. The state subsidized these schools at a meager level, and any white child could attend free, with priority given to orphans or children of the poor. These free schools came to be seen as “pauper schools,” a stigma that kept many away. Typically the quality of both the buildings and the instruction was low. In 1860 there were only 1,395 teachers operating 1,270 schools for 18,915 students.
The “common school” movement that swept the North and Midwest during the 1840s and 1850s missed South Carolina. State leaders debated the need for education for the laboring classes, and most seemed to feel that it would make them dissatisfied with their lot. Most estimates suggest that by 1860 only half of the state’s white children received any schooling. Charleston was the exception. There, city fathers combined state allocations with a local tax to support schools attractive to all social classes, thus removing the “pauper school” stigma. The scheme included a city high school for girls to which was appended a normal, or teacher-training, school.
The central change to South Carolina society resulting from the Civil War was the abolition of slavery. As federal troops occupied the Sea Islands, and later the entire state, teachers sponsored by northern philanthropic and missionary societies followed, establishing schools for former slaves. Notable among these were the Penn School on St. Helena Island and the Avery Institute in Charleston. Enthusiasm among freedmen for education was high.
The constitution of 1868, shaped by Republicans during Radical Reconstruction, made the legislature responsible for “a uniform system of public schools.” Reflective of the concerns of the newly enfranchised freedmen, these schools were to be “open to all the children and the youths of the State, without regard to race and color.” Most whites interpreted the attempt to offer free, public education to all as the imposition of a plan for social and racial equality. Schools were quickly segregated, the legislature was slow to provide funds, and mismanagement and fraud undermined the system. By 1877 there were 2,552 schoolhouses in the state, but more than half were made of logs and only twenty-nine of brick. The vast majority were one-room, nongraded schools providing only elementary education and with an average school term of just four months. The limited impact of this system is suggested by high illiteracy rates. In 1880 twenty-two percent of whites and more than seventy-eight percent of blacks in South Carolina were completely illiterate.
The school system remained in poor shape as Reconstruction ended in South Carolina and the political system was reclaimed by conservative Democrats. The dominant philosophy was characterized by extreme fiscal conservatism along with the belief that education remained primarily a private matter and that laboring whites and, especially blacks, needed little schooling. The constitution of 1895, designed to disfranchise blacks, prescribed a dual school system. Nonetheless, there were positive developments. Attention was paid to teacher training, and the Winthrop Training School for Teachers was opened in Columbia in 1887 and then relocated to Rock Hill. In 1901 a systematic course of study was developed by the State Department of Education. In 1907 the General Assembly allowed larger districts to establish high schools. By the early twentieth century, state efforts were supplemented by those of philanthropic organizations, with some efforts being directed specifically at education for blacks, including the Rosenwald Fund (for school buildings), the Slater Fund (for industrial education), and the provision of Jeanes Teachers for rural, black schools.
Despite some progress, underfunding and inequity continued to characterize the state system as a whole. In urban areas reformers focused on improving schools as a basis for economic growth. Columbia built several new schools, and Spartanburg County had perhaps the best-funded system in the state. A compulsory attendance law was passed in 1919, and the State Department of Education began teacher certification in 1920. As mill villages grew, schools were provided with a mix of public and private funds. But in 1920 South Carolina had the lowest expenditure per pupil in the nation. The school year ranged from 180 days in some localities to only 90 in others. White schools received funding at much higher rates than black schools. When Dillon County raised its taxes to provide better schools, the distribution per pupil for whites was twelve times greater than for blacks. By 1927 there were 279 high schools for whites but only 10 for blacks. In an attempt to address some of these inequities, at least for white students, the General Assembly passed the “6–0–1” law in 1924, providing teacher salaries for six months if the local district would pick up the seventh and abide by certain state regulations and minimum standards.
At midcentury South Carolina schools remained in perilous condition. In the face of rising concern over the quality of the schools, the legislature commissioned the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee, to survey the schools and make recommendations for their improvement. Published in 1948, the survey revealed a host of problems: 1,680 separate school districts in the state, expenditures per child in the wealthiest districts at more than twice that in the poorest, state spending per pupil and teacher salaries below the national and southern averages, and school completion rates half the national average. These dismal figures hid the discrepancies between spending on white students and that on black students. In Clarendon County, for example, per-pupil expenditure during 1949–1950 was $179 per white child and only $43 per black child.
An attempt by black parents in one Clarendon County district to secure bus transportation for their children led to a lawsuit challenging segregated schools. As Briggs v. Elliott worked its way through the federal courts, the white leadership of the state was forced to confront the inadequacies and inequities in South Carolina schools. The legislature approved a $75 million bond issue supported by a three percent sales tax to address school issues and, the white power structure hoped, forestall desegregation. Court-ordered desegregation came as a result of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the decision that also addressed Briggs v. Elliott, and although South Carolina was slow to comply, in the fall of 1963 eleven black children were admitted to previously all-white schools in Charleston. By 1970–1971 South Carolina schools were fully desegregated.
In a strange twist of fate, white resistance to desegregation finally brought the kind of attention to the public schools that they had so long needed. While still behind in some areas, since the 1970s South Carolina schools fully participated in the national debates over schooling and the consequent policy experiments that characterized schools throughout the nation. The Education Finance Act of 1977 identified a “defined minimum program” for South Carolina schools and attempted to address financial inequities in the schools. The Basic Skills Assessment Act (1978) and the Educator Improvement Act (1979) reflected the “back to basics” movement in education and teacher competency.
Accountability and assessment are key to understanding education in South Carolina in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Evidence of the shortcomings of the educational system in South Carolina included the fact that in the early 1980s, on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), a national standardized test required by South Carolina since 1973, averages in all grades tested were below the national average in all tested subjects. On the Basic Skills Assessment Program (BSAP), required since 1978 in grades one, three, six, eight, and eleven, the disparity in scores made by white students and those of African American students was growing. Repeatedly South Carolina was ranked last on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), a test that predicts college performance. During the 1980s and 1990s the General Assembly passed a series of laws that directed the educational system to become more responsible for the development of schoolchildren.
The South Carolina Education Improvement Act (EIA) in 1984 and the 1989 Target 2000: School Reform for the Next Decade were comprehensive public school reform packages that brought South Carolina into the mainstream of educational reform. Funds were allocated for half-day child-development programs, kindergarten for all five-year-olds, special programs for gifted and talented students, and remedial programs for those children who did not pass the basic skills exam. Higher-order thinking skills were required to be included in the school curricula, as well as discipline-based art, music, dance, and drama. Requirements for graduation increased, and dropout- prevention programs were funded. Schools, teachers, and principals were offered monetary bonuses for good test scores. The EIA represented the largest increase in school funding per child in the country. On the other hand, hundreds of South Carolina teachers (most of them African American) were slated to lose their jobs because they were not meeting the standards set by the EIA, and African American students made up a disproportionate number of those failing the exit exam. By 1989 the state’s graduation rate had risen three percent, and although South Carolina continued to rank last in SAT scores, the state’s average had the largest increase of any state in six years.
During the 1990s a series of laws addressed specific school issues. The primary purpose of the Early Childhood Development and Academic Assistance Act of 1993 was to place emphasis on early childhood education and remediation in the elementary grades. It promoted developmentally appropriate curricula and parenting/family literacy. The 1994 School-to-Work Transition Act clarified the connection between school and the workplace by abolishing the “general track,” which did not prepare students for either technical vocations or college, and requiring that all students be placed in either a “tech prep” or “college prep” curriculum. These curricula were to provide rigorous preparation in marketable occupational and academic skills. The Charter School Act of 1996 was intended to provide an opportunity for flexible, innovative, and substantially deregulated public schools. Competition with these schools was seen as a healthy stimulant for change and improvement.
The South Carolina Education Accountability Act (EAA) of 1998 created a performance-based accountability system by setting grade-level standards, requiring district and school report cards to be published in newspapers beginning in 2001, and creating an over- sight committee to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the act. School-readiness tests, grade-level academic standards, and standard-based assessments were required, with academic plans for each child who did not perform at grade level. The Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests (PACT) were developed in-state as the standards-based assessment tool, replacing the BSAP. The first PACT testing in 1999 indicated that a third of South Carolina’s elementary- and middle-school students were not prepared to enter the next grade level. To enable the state to compare its students with others across the country, Terra Nova, a nationally standardized test, replaced the Stanford 8 (used 1990–1994) and the Metropolitan Achievement Test 7 (used 1995–1998). Terra Nova was administered to around thirteen percent of students in grades three, six, and nine for the first time in April 1999.
The end of the century saw two more education acts, the First Steps to School Readiness Act of 1999 and the Parental Involvement in Their Children’s Education Act of 2000. First Steps was intended to ensure that children arrived at first grade healthy and ready to learn. Its goals included supporting parents in optimizing their children’s development through access to health care, nutrition, and preschool programs. The Parental Involvement Act was intended to heighten parental awareness of the importance of their role in the development and education of their children. Schools were challenged to become more “parent friendly.” Both acts reflected the state’s awareness and adoption of contemporary educational research and its implications for schooling. While years of neglect cannot be remedied overnight, the state is clearly expending great efforts to foster effective twenty-first-century schools.
Green, Robert P., Jr. “School Reform South Carolina Style: Mid–Twentieth Century to Present.” In The Organization of Public Education in South Carolina, edited by John H. Walker, Michael D. Richardson, and Thomas I. Parks. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1992.
Jones, Lewis P. “History of Education in South Carolina: Colonial to Mid–Twentieth Century.” In The Organization of Public Education in South Carolina, edited by John H. Walker, Michael D. Richardson, and Thomas I. Parks. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1992.