School choice has been lauded by many South Carolinians as a way to give more children access to exceptional programs and high standards.
But in Kershaw County, a choice program launched nearly 10 years ago has led to a heated debate about racial imbalances—and some perceived inequities—in three Camden area elementary schools. In those schools, attendance is not limited by where a student lives. Parents can choose which school their child attends.
Jackson, Camden and Pine Tree Hill elementary schools are so heavily composed of one race—nearly 80 percent black in one school, 70 percent white in another—that the imbalance has fueled feelings among some in the community of unequal treatment in the roughly 10,000-student district.
Although officials plan to redraw attendance lines at all three schools to fix the issue, the boundaries have been tied to a debate about where to put a new Jackson School, a name synonymous with Camden’s first schools for black students.
Choice programs, too, are being reviewed.
“The only thing that I will insist on as we look at any other choice programs is equity in access—that’s the right thing to do,” said Superintendent Frank Morgan, who arrived in the district last year. “It should reflect the demographic diversity of the district.”
The goal of choice, launched in 1999, was to create special-themed programs in all three elementary schools to draw children from around Camden and encourage racially balanced enrollments.
But, according to the district, it has had the opposite effect.
Black enrollment has grown to 76 percent from 58 percent at Jackson; and white enrollment rose to 68 percent from 48 percent at Camden and to 60 percent from 44 percent at Pine Tree Hill, according to the district.
Recent talk of inequities started a couple of years ago when the district began looking at future building needs.
Pine Tree Hill had a fairly new building, and Camden Elementary was expected to receive nearly $12 million in renovations.
Jackson, too, was slated for upgrades, estimated at $4.5 million.
But more money is spent per pupil at Jackson—a school with many economically disadvantaged students—than the other two schools, according to state report cards.
At Jackson, $6,960 was spent per pupil last year; at Camden, $4,623; and at Pine Tree Hill, $6,114. According to those same reports, 66 percent to 77 percent of the teachers in each school hold advanced degrees. Instructional time is also similar.
Valerie Tucker, president of Pine Tree Hill’s parent-teacher organization, said she sends her child, who is white, to that school because it’s closest to her job and it’s where her child is most comfortable—not because of race.
“I think people just want their kids to learn and they want them to be successful and have good grades, and wherever that’s happening, that’s where they need to be,” she said.