Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Post & Courier uncovers ALEC's reach in SC

Reporters Robert Behre and Stephen Largen have outdone themselves with an investigative report on the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the South Carolina legislature, and by extension, on the public policy governing the lives of millions of South Carolinians.

With extensive background reporting, complete narratives, examples and facts, Behre and Largen set a standard that I hope The State and other papers in South Carolina will emulate in their own coverage of ALEC -- when they get around to mentioning it.

Read it and weep.

Sen. Mike Rose stood up on the Senate floor earlier this month to clear confusion over a bill and asked for a delay so he could check with the measure’s creator.

But the proposal’s author wasn’t a fellow lawmaker or anybody in South Carolina.

“This is an American Legislative Exchange Council bill,” the Summerville Republican told his colleagues. “What I would like to do over the break is to do the research now with ALEC and address the senator from Orangeburg’s concerns.”

The moment provided a rare public outing of a little-known player in the state Legislature — a Washington-based, mostly corporate-funded nonprofit that pairs lawmakers across the country with business interests.

Since 1973, they have worked together in private — often at resort-hosted retreats — to craft proposed laws addressing everything from health care to education to gun laws and even voting rights.

Some corporations behind ALEC, among the largest companies in the country, stand to profit from passage of the group’s ready-made, model bills.

The group identifies itself as nonpartisan and working to advance free-market enterprise and limited government at the state level.

ALEC has Democratic members, including a few in South Carolina, but its bills most often line up with the GOP agenda.

The extent of ALEC’s influence in the Palmetto State is difficult to nail down, as there is no complete or definitive public tracking of just how many of its model bills have been introduced or passed here in some form over the years.

But the group’s bills are materializing at the Statehouse.

It’s rare for state legislators to publicly admit that a bill they sponsor is actually the work of ALEC, but the similarities between the group’s model bills and some introduced here are undeniable. Whole sections of some, with a few words changed, match ALEC models.

Some of ALEC’s member lawmakers say the bipartisan group provides useful assistance in weighing the impact of legislation on corporations and job creators, assistance not unlike the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But more often, critics say the group has taken on an increasingly conservative tilt. Some say ALEC provides corporations a way to influence lawmakers without it being reported to state ethics watchdogs.

“We feel that for a group like ALEC, a lot of how they make these bills is done in secret through corporate money and without public input,” said Liz Bartolomeo, a spokeswoman with the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based, nonpartisan group that advocates for government openness.
Voter registration bill

Charleston GOP Sen. Chip Campsen is an ALEC member and among the co-sponsors of the state’s controversial voter ID bill that passed last year.

The bill was signed into law by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley but subsequently blocked by the U.S. Justice Department, which said it discriminated against minorities.

The measure requires voters to bring a photo ID to the polls as a way to protect against fraud, bill supporters have said.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the federal government, arguing the state’s voter ID law does not discriminate.

South Carolina was among a group of states to pass voter ID measures last year.

Language in many of the bills, including South Carolina’s, bears some similarities to ALEC’s model voter ID bill.

Earlier this month, after a fund- raiser in downtown Columbia for a national group that supports voter ID laws, Campsen said he developed his bill on his own without input from any organizations, including ALEC.

He said there could be a couple of reasons for similarities between the group’s model bill and his own. “Maybe people copied me,” he said.

But Campsen said it’s more likely ALEC copied laws from two other states whose voter ID measures have been upheld by the courts.

“I’ve introduced a lot of legislation in response to Supreme Court decisions, and that’s been my practice,” he said.

While the state waits for a resolution to Wilson’s lawsuit challenging the federal block, Campsen has introduced another measure that would impact voting rights.

Specifically, the bill would limit the types of IDs residents can use to register to vote.

Currently, state residents who want to register to vote must provide a valid photo ID or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document that shows their name and address.

Campsen’s bill, titled the “Voter Citizenship Verification Act,” would limit acceptable forms of identification to a military ID, South Carolina or other state-issued ID, a birth certificate, naturalization documents or a passport.

The new measure, which has cleared a Senate panel, bears striking similarities to ALEC’s “Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act,” which lays out the same proposed requirements to register to vote.

The wording of the two bills also matches up closely in several sections.

Campsen did not respond to calls seeking comment on his new bill.

Another ALEC proposal that has passed in South Carolina was part of last year’s Fairness in Civil Justice Act.

That measure’s two-part trial, where a jury first determines compensatory damages, then punitive damages, is very similar to ALEC’s “Punitive Damages Standards Act.”

The interstate health care compact bill, which Rose identified on the floor of the Senate as ALEC-created, passed the Senate earlier this month.
How it works

Lawmakers pay $100 for a two-year membership in ALEC, but that makes up less than 2 percent of the group’s annual income. Most comes from corporate donations, conferences, advertising and publications.

Wait a second: Does this mean that WE, as taxpayers, pay the membership fee for these men and women to collect model legislation to use against us?

Can we not adopt a new law prohibiting the use of public funds to buy memberships in ALEC?

In return, lawmakers may attend a few meetings a year, such as its spring task force meeting set for May 11 in Charlotte. There, they break into committees with corporate members and work on model bills.

The elected officials’ expenses incurred attending meetings can be reimbursed by the group, or lawmakers sometimes pay their own way out of their campaign accounts.

“Why shouldn’t the private sector be able to sit at a table and discuss legislation that affects the country and them and people?” Rose asked. “The legislators that I know who are conscientiously trying to figure out what’s the best thing are using these organizations to obtain information. They’re certainly not a rubber stamp.”

Almost 2,000 lawmakers from all 50 states are members — about 25 percent — and ALEC bills itself as the nation’s largest nonpartisan individual membership association of state lawmakers. Its alumni include Haley and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston.

Rose likened ALEC to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a publicly-backed bipartisan group that also works on model bills.

State Rep. Liston Barfield, R-Conway, serves as a co-chair of ALEC in South Carolina and also as the secretary of its national board of directors.

Barfield said he first got involved with ALEC when he was a Democrat serving in the House in the 1980s.

“There’s no other organization that lets us hear what the business community is thinking,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we support them on every issue, but at least that gives us insight into what they’re thinking about and what is affecting their business.”

Respectfully, doesn't the state Chamber of Commerce do that? Really, the state chamber is well represented inside and outside the legislative chambers, and I would think that they have a chokehold on the best thinking of the state's business community, so no lawmaker has to look to any outside group for such expertise.

Nationally, ALEC claims more than a thousand of its model bills are introduced each year, and about 17 percent of them become law.

However, the group offers no full breakdown by state. Barfield said some of ALEC’s bills have become law in South Carolina, but, “I don’t have a list of them. I never sat down and tried to figure them out.”
Recent controversy

In recent weeks, ALEC has faced a crush of controversy in the wake of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

While the state waited more than six weeks to bring charges against neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, who shot Martin, the national spotlight turned to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. That law allows people to use deadly force if they feel threatened in a public place.

When applied, as it was initially in the Martin case, those using deadly force are immune from prosecution. Zimmerman was charged later through a special prosecutor.

While Florida’s 2005 law did not stem from ALEC’s work, the group did create a model bill along the same lines that expands the so-called “Castle Doctrine” to areas outside a person’s home.

ALEC’s push for stand-your-ground laws has resulted in some groups calling for corporations to end their support for the group, with some success.

And last week ALEC announced it would focus solely on economic issues going forward.

But the group had been under growing scrutiny even before Martin’s death.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a Washington nonprofit critical of the group’s influence, recently received more than 800 previously secret ALEC model bills and then posted them on its website, providing a rare public glimpse of ALEC’s workings.

Brendan Fischer, a law fellow with the center, said the group hopes this new sunshine will increase voters’ awareness of the previously low-key group.

“They have this huge influence on the laws that govern us, but the public isn’t even allowed in. The press isn’t even allowed in,” he said. “It’s all happening without any public oversight or accountability.”

Fischer said part of the center’s concerns stem from how the corporations working through ALEC aren’t named on most lawmakers’ state ethics reports.

South Carolina lawmakers who have received grants and scholarships to attend ALEC events have declared them as ALEC donations on their campaign disclosure forms, but the names of the corporations themselves don’t appear there. “It’s layering influence on top of influence and it’s all happening outside the bounds of state ethics laws,” Fischer said.

Well, then, here's another opportunity to bring sunlight and transparency to the process: Let's adopt a new law requiring lawmakers to identify to corporate sources of their "grants and scholarships" whenever they attend conferences they don't pay to attend.

ALEC critics in South Carolina focus less on the ethics angle than what they see as an increasingly partisan edge to its model bills.

Sen. John Land, D-Manning, said he once contributed to ALEC when it hosted a meeting in Hilton Head. But he said the group now has lost its way. He cited its voter ID bill as “highly discriminatory and totally unnecessary.”

Such laws may seem beyond ALEC’s scope of pushing for limited government and free markets. But, Fischer said, “You could see how this would indirectly benefit big business because if you can reduce voter turnout in populations that tend to vote Democratic, you’re going to be more likely to have Republicans in office, and those Republicans are more likely to pass the kind of laws you want passed.”

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he joined ALEC after first winning office in the mid 1990s but quickly left the group without attending a conference after discovering what he described as the group’s one-sided, conservative bent and one-size-fits-all approach.

But Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican who serves with Barfield as state co-chair of ALEC, said the group is best understood as an educational tool.

“I just think it’s healthy to be involved and listen to ideas and listen to national trends and get together with colleagues,” he said, adding that even the National Conference of State Legislatures has its critics.

Rose, the GOP senator from Summerville, said ALEC’s role in formulating bills should not be voters’ prime concern.

“In the end, our Legislature passes or doesn’t passes legislation, so the origin of the legislation really doesn’t matter,” he said.

Respectfully again, I suggest the origin of legislation does matter.

When boneheaded proposals crop up before our committees and lawmakers, I want to be able to identify the proposal with the person who proposed it. If our lawmakers have to cull through an ALEC legislative catalog to find the proposals to resolve South Carolinians' issues and concerns, then maybe we need new lawmakers. After all, ALEC isn't on the ballot -- the men and women representing us in the legislature are.

Equalization schools highlighted in Charleston

Having served briefly on the United States Supreme Court, Governor Jimmy Byrnes foresaw in 1951 that a number of low-level federal lawsuits would likely make their way to the nation's highest court within a few years and, given the Court's composition, might result in an order striking down the fifty-year-old "separate but equal" principle in public accommodations.

Byrnes made no secret of his thinking, and he pushed our state legislature toward a Hail Mary strategy: Adopt a massive tax increase to fund the building of hundreds of new schools, to illustrate to the Court that, at least in South Carolina, "separate but equal" was still a viable concept and should be maintained.

He said so in an address to the South Carolina Education Association's annual state conference within a few weeks of his inauguration.

The tax increase passed, the schools were built, but the Court issued its famous ruling in Brown v Board of Education anyway, ordering the integration of public accommodations, including public schools.

Sunday's edition of the Post and Courier of Charleston featured the results of Byrnes's strategy, the so-called equalization schools built in the 1950s, thanks to the work of a graduate student.

Rebekah Dobrasko stumbled upon a piece of relatively unexplored South Carolina history while working on her master’s degree in public history.

She learned the state passed its first general sales tax in 1951 to fund “equalization” schools. This statewide initiative was designed to improve black public schools as a demonstration of its commitment to separate but equal. The state wanted to avoid integrating its racially segregated facilities.

More than 700 new schools were built during the 1950s, but Dobrasko could find little research on these schools or what became of them.

She focused on Charleston County’s equalization schools for her master’s thesis and discovered that some were slated to be demolished.

Dobrasko alerted city officials about the history behind one building slated to be torn down, and her advocacy has led to a first-of-its-kind exhibit being planned for the campus of Charleston Progressive Academy.

School leaders will create the state’s first public display on equalization schools, and the public will have a chance to decide what should be included.

“It’s a chance to tell this story,” Dobrasko said. “It’s a part of our history that’s not the most pleasant, but it’s still something that shaped the education landscape today.”
Building equalization

The state’s equalization schools were built or renovated between 1951 and 1960 as part of the state’s response to the Briggs v. Elliott school desegregation lawsuit. That case originally accused Clarendon County officials of refusing to uphold the law’s requirement that segregated facilities be equal.

Within the first six years of the equalization program, the state nearly doubled the number of accredited black high schools from 80 to 145 in 1957.

South Carolina was one of three states — the other two were Georgia and Mississippi — to give money for school equalization in an attempt to prevent integration. Their efforts would be for naught when the nation’s highest court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that black students must be allowed to sit alongside their white peers.

As part of the equalization school effort, Charleston would receive $6.2 million to renovate, build or equip 46 schools. The majority of the funds went toward black school renovation and construction; black students received new schools first, but the money also funded white-only schools.

Dobrasko became interested in equalization schools during one of her graduate classes at the University of South Carolina. The class took regular trips to Charleston, so she decided to look further at the equalization schools in the county.

She used her Charleston-focused thesis to later create a website on the issue. She heard from residents across the state, and she expanded her work to include schools outside the Lowcountry.

Dobrasko now works for the state Historic Preservation Office, and her job as a supervisor of compliance, tax incentives and surveys has nothing to do with equalization schools.

Still, when she heard about the demolition of Memminger Elementary, an equalization school for white students, she felt compelled to write an email that evolved into a promise of a new public exhibit.
Preserving history

Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operations officer, said the school district can’t restore all the buildings built in that era. Of the equalization schools, the former Courtenay School, now home to Charleston Progressive Academy, has some of the most distinctive architecture, and its close proximity to the Visitor Center and downtown makes it an ideal site for tourists, he said.

Lewis is not sure what the exhibit will look like or include, but he said it likely will be housed in an outdoor courtyard and accessible to the public. It might have maps and plaques as well as photos, but he said that will depend on public input.

The school also might be able to feature some items in its library, but no decisions have been made, he said. The school’s construction budget has about $50,000 set aside for the exhibit.

“If we don’t collect these (artifacts) soon, the memories will be lost,” he said.

Dobrasko said she wants the public — particularly residents who attended or lived in communities near the equalization schools — to share their thoughts on what this exhibit could be. She encouraged residents to bring yearbooks, photos, graduation programs and their stories about whether the schools were important to the area; what the schools were like when they opened; and how they affected the community.

Some of the community’s leading voices on diversity issues — such as the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center and the Charleston NAACP — weren’t aware of the exhibit and said they haven’t been part of the conversation so far. Both groups said they’d like to know more.

Aurora Harris, diversity programs manager for the Preservation Society of Charleston, said she’s been involved in the planning and has helped publicize the upcoming public hearings.

“It’s really telling a part of the story that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” she said.

Bernard Powers, a College of Charleston history professor who’s serving as chief historian on the strategic plan for the International African American Museum, wasn’t aware of the proposed exhibit either but said these schools are an important part of the civil rights movement.

“There is the era of segregation … and the other side is a period of desegregation or integration,” he said. “But in between, there were at least sporadic efforts to forestall desegregation and integration by making separate really equal. And the (equalization) schools are probably the best example of this that you can possibly come up with.”

McCampbell School honored in Graniteville

Aiken reporter Rob Novit can unearth some real gems in his coverage for the Aiken Standard, and this is one of them.

The Leavelle McCampbell school building received a historical marker on Saturday, with the event taking place in the school's 90th year.

Among the dozens of graduates and others in attendance was Minnie Ferguson, 94. She is living history, having started first grade at the school in 1923, the year after Leavelle McCampbell opened.

Ferguson cheerfully named her first three teachers at the school. Her fourth-grade teacher was Juanita Schroder, and she was strictest of all of the teachers Ferguson had.

"I'm very proud of this school," she said. "It's amazing to me that it's still here. Of course, I can hardly believe I've lived this long either. I wouldn't have missed this for anything."

The marker, formally approved by the S.C. Department of Archives and History, is sponsored by the Leavelle McCampbell School Alumni Association.

"This school has a strong foundation," said association president Joe Taylor. "It was built out of Graniteville Company granite and has withstood the test of time."

Originally a grade 1-12 facility, Leavelle McCampbell later served grades 7-12. After Midland Valley High was constructed in 1980, Leavelle Campbell became a middle school serving grades 6-8.

Taylor praised all of the principals who have served the school, including the current administrators, principal Dr. Lloydette Young and assistant principal Brad Weston.

The ceremony Saturday had plenty of lighthearted moments. Four 1949 graduates unveiled the marker, and Taylor introduced them by their nicknames of Slim, Goat, Monk and Hotshot - Lenwood Melton, Bill Whittle, Buddy Wise and Gene Wilson, respectively.

"This was a special place," Melton said. "Really, it was the only place. There weren't many schools around as magnificent as this one."

When he returned to the community a number of years ago, Wilson did some volunteer work at Leavelle McCampbell for then-principal Al Lamback. The principal showed Wilson the boiler room, which was an athletic room in Wilson's time.

"I showed Al where some stairs used to be, where I would sneak down for a smoke now and then," Wilson said with a smile. "Really, it's a pleasure to be back and be a part of this community. I get emotional thinking about this school."

William Gregg, who founded the Graniteville Company in the mid-19th century, believed in the value of education well ahead of his time and insisted on compulsory schooling for his employees' children. When the existing school was dedicated in 1922, a company executive echoed Gregg's philosophy. For the past 75 years at that time, the policy was to give every child an education. The new building would be a token of appreciation for the services provided by the company's employees, the executive said.

When Carolyn Hardy was growing up in Graniteville in the 1950s, she was fascinated by the large and majestic three-story Leavelle McCampbell school. But she was an African-American, and separate schools were the norm then. Hardy attended the Schofield school in Aiken for junior high and high school.

Before her senior year, however, freedom of choice policies were adopted, and Hardy became the only black senior to enroll at Leavelle McCampbell that year. Many black students through the county generally faced challenges during this early phase of desegregation but not Hardy.

"I had a wonderful time. I loved it," she said. "Seeing the building again today is amazing."

Other alumni association board members are Pat Bates, Brenda Taylor, Merle Bush, Sally Jennings, Wanda McGee, Joel Randall, Skippy Pate and Tommy Wooten. Also participating in the event were the Rev. James Addy, GVW Investment Corporation chairman Ronald Wood, Kirk Bennett and LMMS chorus members, directed by Charla Coffin.

Growing up in Graniteville and attending Leavelle McCampbell until his graduation in 1955 was ideal, Wooten said.

"We were one big family," he said. "It was same group of kids from the first grade, and life revolved around the school. I appreciate its unique place in history."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bamberg trustees address lunch money problems

I can understand the need to allow students to charge their meals. Children in poor, rural counties are likely the children of under-employed South Carolinians.

If Governor Nikki Haley finds a spare minute in her day -- I know it must be crowded with national media requests and fashion photographers, all clamoring for an audience with her grace -- she might give some thought to improving the plight of children in her native county.

For now, trustees of the Bamberg school district are left dealing with how to collect lunch money and how to keep the school lunch program afloat with meager resources.

The news comes from reporter Jerry Halmon of the Advertizer-Herald:

There is “a significant problem” in this district collecting lunch money; Bamberg School District One Superintendent Phyllis Schwarting told trustee board members at their March meeting. In offering an administrative rule to go along with policy that is presently in place, the Superintendent noted that by policy students in middle school and elementary school are allowed to charge up to $10 only for meals.

Now students are charging up to $25 worth of meals and are receiving bills of $100 or $200 in the middle, elementary and primary schools. “This has created a significant cash deficit for the food service,” Schwarting commented, adding “we do have to look at something to help us.”

It was noted that typically from $ 8,000 to $ 10,000 is owed to the food service program (which is supposed to be self sufficient) each year. Profits earned in the food service program go to the district to cover part of the $180,000 it (the food lunch program) owed the district a few years ago, but has “come down some the last few years.”

The Superintendent stated the district needed to look at lowering the amount a student could owe for meals to $10, noting that most people could come up with $10 more so than $25 or $50. Board Chair Rita Sease wanted to know if the same policy would apply to adults as well as students, noting that she did not think adults and students should be treated the same.

Superintendent Schwarting said she will bring back a separate policy to address adult lunches, noting that she did not think any changes in the policy could be implemented until next year.

Congratulations to the South Florence NJROTC

High achievement is always happy news.

For the second year in a row, the NJROTC Academic Team at South Florence High School scored in the Top 10% of all NJROTC units in the nation during the annual National Academic Exam.

More than 1700 teams competed.

Following stiff competition against several other local NJROTC units, the South Florence Academic Team felt prepared and challenged the rest of the nation scoring extremely well. Many hours of studying and preparation paid off very well.

Congratulations for a job well done!

Greenville News supports public school choice

The headline tells the tale: "Open enrollment is a good idea."

That's the verdict of the editors of the Greenville News, and it accompanies an editorial that lays out in flat facts the case for supporting public school choice, the substance of a bill sponsored by Senator Wes Hayes and now before the Senate for consideration.

This is not the private school voucher bill adopted by the House in March; that one drains tax revenues from the General Fund, in turn draining available resources from public schools. The Hayes bills addresses choice among public schools, earning the praise of Greenville's editors.

A bill that would provide for open public school enrollment across district lines and ensure students have other choices such as single-gender schools, Montessori schools and language-immersion programs seems to be a reasonable way to provide students in South Carolina greater access to high-quality public schools.

The bill has been passed by a Senate Education subcommittee, but has a long way to go before it becomes law. A similar bill was passed by the Legislature in 2007 but vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford because it didn't include a private school choice option.

Public school choice, or open enrollment, is an obvious place to begin creating competition for public schools. Public education is a constitutionally mandated function of the state government and it makes perfect sense for lawmakers seeking to increase competition to do it in a way that clearly is within their constitutional authority. A proposal such as this avoids any of the potential gray areas that surround the idea of using state funds to pay for or subsidize private education.

A bill that would provide a tax deduction for parents who send their children to private schools is being considered in the Legislature, but it does not offer the incentives that would truly increase competition for public schools.

Open enrollment for public schools would let parents opt to have their children attend better performing schools that are outside of their attendance zone as long as there is room in that school.

School districts would be able to turn down students seeking a transfer if a school is at capacity, and the bill would cap the number of students crossing attendance boundaries at 3 percent of total enrollment. These are sensible limits.

The bill also would require that students at all grade levels be offered one additional choice beyond the school they are assigned, according to a report by The Associated Press. Those choices could include single-gender, Montessori, language immersion, magnet, charter, arts-intensive, extended-day and year-round programs, according to AP. That sounds like a good idea, but lawmakers should carefully study the financial impacts of such a requirement.

This law would need to be a zero-sum proposal -- districts should not lose funding by accepting students from outside the district or meeting other requirements in the bill. Decisions on which students are accepted also would need to be made in a completely objective manner. For instance, this is not intended to open the door for schools to recruit talented athletes to bolster an athletic program.

Those cautions aside, this bill could increase competition among public schools. Under-performing schools could see their enrollment decline unless they take steps to improve, and that should be an incentive for schools to constantly assess their own performance.

In addition to giving students a choice to attend a better school, this bill could offer parents a more convenient option. Some parents, for instance, might seek a school that's closer to work than their child's assigned school.

It would be unfortunate to see this bill falter again because it's not linked to a private-school choice option. It makes perfect sense to separate this type of school choice from other bills that would open the doors to using tax money to fund or subsidize private school attendance.

With public school choice there are no questions of equity involving lower-income students who want to transfer, there's no question about appropriate levels of accountability to the state, and there's less concern about financial impact on local public schools. All of those are serious questions that need to be asked and carefully answered before South Carolina adopts any sort of private school choice. (That said, there is room in this state for limited private school choice that is carefully crafted and is aimed at increasing the options for children trapped in low-performing schools.)

Lawmakers would do well to give this bill a serious look and give state students the option to attend schools across attendance and district boundaries. The limitations in this bill appear to be reasonable enough to ensure that open enrollment in South Carolina would be both manageable and beneficial to students and our public schools.

South Carolina needs to take steps to continue improving the quality of education in this state. This would appear to be one such step that could be taken with little controversy and no negative financial impact on the public schools that are so vitally important to the success of everyone in our state.

Supreme Court upholds public education as a right*

Next time I hear an American politician declare that we should be more like India, I'm going to shout AMEN.

Tucked away in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal last week was this nugget by Tripti Lahiri and Diksha Sahni:

India's Supreme Court upheld a law Thursday that supporters say can transform access to education for hundreds of millions of poor children but critics claim infringes on the rights of private schools to admit whom they want.

The Right to Education law, which went into effect in April 2010, requires private schools to give one quarter of their places to low-income children. Two judges of the three-judge bench that was hearing the challenge by over 30 petitioners found that the law did not violate the constitutional rights of those running private schools.

However, they carved out an exemption for private "minority" institutions, such as those run by religious groups, finding that the act "infringes the fundamental freedom" of such schools.

The third judge, however, found entirely in favor of the petitioners, writing in a dissenting order that to compel any private schools "to admit 25% of the students on the fee structure determined by the State, is nothing but an invasion as well as appropriation of the rights guaranteed to them."

The new law makes education free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14, and requires schools, even private schools that don't receive any public funding, to set aside places for low-income children, for which they will be reimbursed at rates that cannot exceed spending per child in government schools.

What does this mean?

It means, for one thing, that India's Supreme Court is the mirror-opposite of our own: Two-thirds of its panel agreed that the Indian Constitution guarantees public education as a right to every child, thus upholding a law passed by India's government two years ago, lovingly named the Right to Education Act. That law required every private school in India to hold 25 percent of its seats available to non-paying children.

Only one-third of the panel dissented, arguing that private schools shouldn't be forced to take students they don't want.

Can you imagine if the right to exclusivity were taken away from private and parochial schools in America? It would take away our segregation academies' whole reason for being.

India's public education system is in shambles, plagued by teacher absenteeism and meager resources, and the law was designed to try to ensure that all children have access to learning. The particular provision about private school admissions also had a broader social goal: to minimize the class and caste divisions that persist in Indian society despite years of economic gains.

India's education minister said he was happy with the court's decision.

"What the court has given us today is clarity on the issue so that all controversies are set to rest," Kapil Sabil told the news channel NDTV. "Our vision of education moves forward."

But private schools opposed the provision, saying it placed an excessive financial burden on them and that educational standards would go down.

Damodar Prasad Goyal, the president of the Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan, the lead petitioner challenging the law, said: "The bench recognized that unaided private schools have the right to run education institutions freely and without any interference." But he added, "a section of law recognizes that there are certain reasonable restrictions on the functioning."

Usha Albuquerque, who heads an educational consultancy called Careers Smart, said the schools' reluctance to implement was a reflection of India's deep class divide.

"The class and economic divisions are too stark and thus a lot of schools also opposed" the mixed-income experiment, she said.

Did you catch that?

The individuals and corporate entities who opposed the public education law argued against the law based on "class and economic divisions."

In short, the wealthy do not want to share space, air and resources with the poor. Same as here!

Fortunately for Indian children, their national Constitution guarantees free public education as a right. Ours, sadly, does not.

Another Indian media outlet reported the news this way:

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the constitutional validity of the Right to Education Act, 2009, which mandates 25% free seats to poor children up to the age of 14 in government and private aided and unaided schools (but not in unaided minority institutions) uniformly across the country.

A child who is denied the right to access education is not only [being] deprived of his right to live with dignity, he is also [being] deprived of his right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution,” the court said.

By a majority view, a three-judge bench of Chief Justice SH Kapadia and Justice KS Radhakrishnan and Justice Swantanter Kumar said the act will apply uniformly to government and unaided private schools except unaided private minority schools.

“The 2009 Act seeks to remove all those barriers, including financial and psychological barriers, which a child belonging to the weaker section and disadvantaged group has to face while seeking admission,” read the judgment.

Wow. A child who is denied the right to access education is not only deprived of his right to live with dignity, but also deprived of his right to freedom of speech and expression. What a powerful declaration.

We'll never see anything so clear and true and right in our own country, and isn't that sad?

The news was so important that the BBC picked it up, too:

A law that makes education a fundamental right and reserves 25% of school seats for poor children is valid, India's Supreme Court has said.

The court ruling follows petitions by some private schools that complained the law violated their autonomy and was a drain on resources.

India's minister for human resource development, Kapil Sibal, has expressed his "happiness" over the court order.

Millions of children aged six-14 do not attend school in India.

Under the law, every child between those ages can demand free, primary school education.
Critics complain that schools run by both federal and state governments are poorly run and badly managed, although several government schemes are running to attract more children to schools.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said enough funds would be made available to ensure that children had access to education.

He said the government was committed "to ensuring that all children irrespective of gender and social category have access to education".

Recalling his own childhood, Mr Singh, a qualified economist, said: "I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am totally because of education."

"So I want that the light of education should reach to all," he added.

"Enough funds will be made available," India's leader said, because "the light of education should reach to all."

Why couldn't it have been America who made that declaration?

Finn: Romney will push vouchers, despite flaws

Former deputy Secretary of Education Chester Finn predicts that we'll soon see an education plan from presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who heretofore hasn't bothered to let Americans know what he might do regarding public education if he were to assume the presidency.

Further, Finn predicts that a Romney plan will lean heavily on vouchers, mainly because every other conservative strategy has been co-opted by the Obama administration.

But the issue of vouchers ought not be taken as a silver bullet for conservatives, Finn cautions.

He writes,

As vouchers have become real, however, the political picture has grown more complex. Eight newish factors are worth noting:

First, while the U.S. constitution is no longer a deal-breaker, some thirty-eight states have sundry provisions in their own constitutions that make it difficult or impossible to aid private schools and/or religious institutions and/or any sort of education program that isn’t “free and uniform.” (This is what killed the Florida “opportunity scholarship program” in that state's Supreme Court in 2006.) Hence there’s a practical limit to how far vouchers can really spread.

That was precisely the problem for former Governor Mark Sanford and his successor, Nikki Haley, and their pro-voucher acolytes. Since our state Constitution actively bars the use of state funds for private or parochial education, voucher proponents have had to find cute ways around the prohibition, like giving tax credits and tax deductions for tuition to private and parochial schools.

But, as they say, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck... it's a voucher.

Second, as religion has loomed larger as a political issue, evangelicals (most often Republicans) are keener and keener for it to play a role in public policy, including religious education and church-affiliated schools, while secularists (more apt to be Democrats) are even more resistant to public support for such schools.

As a colony, South Carolina characterized itself as a haven for all religions, a Mecca of religious tolerance. But the Age of Enlightenment was followed by the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century, and we live under its influence yet. There are reasons why the Quakers largely abandoned South Carolina in the mid-1800s, and why Nikki Haley had to assure primary voters of her commitment to Methodist Christianity.

Third, other features of private schools -— that have nothing to do with unions -— also cause palpitations among liberals (most often Democrats), such as selectivity in the admissions office (and the risk of “exclusion” of poor or disabled or minority or other “diverse” kids). Such anxieties may not cause them to keep their own daughters and sons out of such schools but a double standard often comes into play where “public policy” is concerned.

Ah, exclusivity raises its head again. Country clubs, golf clubs, hunting clubs and private schools remain the last bastions of exclusivity in America, and we mustn't use public policy to alter such things.

Fourth, even as the pro-voucher team has picked up a handful (but only that) of influential Democrats, a lot of state and local Republicans have grown somewhat equivocal about school choice—charters, vouchers, inter-district transfers, and more. Their own suburban constituents, whether enrolled in public or private schools, are averse to welcoming many of those kids into their classrooms, and their proud suburban school systems don’t much want to lose their own pupils, either.

Those kids. Did you catch that? Those kids.

What sort of kids is Finn talking about, that comfortable suburban parents wouldn't want many of in their classrooms? Hmm?

Fifth, what was for decades the strongest lobby in favor of vouchers (and tuition tax credits and more), namely the Roman Catholic Church, is today neither nearly as strong as it once was nor nearly as committed to revitalizing its own schools. It seems to have lost most of the wind from its sails.

Sixth, private schools in general are queasy about government entanglements and rules, worried about “accountability” requirements, alarmed at the prospect of forfeiting their distinctiveness, fretful about losing control of their standards and admission processes, leery of disclosing comparable data on their own educational effectiveness, and, sometimes, legitimately unsure that they really can do a good job with those kids. Nor has American private education shown much entrepreneurial inclination to grow to accommodate greater demand.

News flash: Traditional public schools aren't in love with what Finn calls "government entanglements and rules" either, but it's part of the social contract that public schools accept and serve every child that enrolls, that standards apply and must be maintained, and that accountability -- apples to apples comparison and contrast -- is part of the agreement. It's a pity that parochial schools value the lack of standards more than children's education.

Seventh, with state and local budgets tight, the claim that vouchers save taxpayer money over the long run is met with incredulity by school systems that can only see revenue disappearing along with headcount. And the argument that vouchers will be a needless and, for the taxpayer, costly windfall for middle-class families whose children already attend private schools is not easy to refute. (Of course, a carefully designed program may aid only “new” students.)

Truth is truth, isn't it?

And how helpful is Finn, suggesting a way around the ugliness of unfortunate voucher financing.

Eighth, and finally, the word “private” has grown even more suspect in American education circles today than it was yesterday. “Privatization” has sometimes gone badly.

Do tell.

Some private operators of charter schools are greedy, self-absorbed, and uninterested in educational quality. (Likewise for private SES providers and such.) Early evaluations have yielded mixed results for privately operated “cyber schools." Private school (and college) tuitions keep rising without evidence of improved results. And in era of transparency and accountability, the reluctance of private educational institutions to disclose key information about themselves, their students, their academic gains, and their finances—even to private organizations such as GreatSchools.net—has made them at least slightly suspect. (Why are they so secretive?)

What's shocking about Finn's litany is not its substance; we read the papers, we think and use deductive reasoning, we come our own conclusions about the motives of public school antagonists. What's shocking is hearing the opponents of public education admit the fatal flaws in their alternatives.

Still, fatally flawed as the alternatives are, public school opponents cling to their ideologies.

I’m still heartily in favor of more vouchers, provided that the program is structured with an eye toward serving the neediest kids first and making participating schools reasonably accountable for their results. I do expect the momentum in this direction to continue. But I don’t expect it to accelerate. And that’s not just because of hostility from Messrs. Obama and Duncan.

Privatized bus drivers vote to unionize Dorchester

Hurray for exercising one's federal rights to organize with one's co-workers into a union, and negotiate the terms of one's own life, livelihood and career path.

This is called taking control of one's own destiny, and Dorchester's bus drivers deserve recognition for their courage and tenacity.

It happened a week or more ago, but it's worth the attention still, as our lawmakers seem dead-set on privatizing the rest of South Carolina's school bus drivers -- a step that opens the door for even more privatized drivers to invite union representation.

Reporter Jim Tatum framed the situation in the Journal-Scene on April 13:

Bus drivers and monitors for Durham School Services, the private corporation that currently operates the Dorchester District 2 school bus services, will vote today on whether to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union.

Union organizers Annette Hill and Sabrina Isom, both bus drivers for Durham, say they believe most of their co-workers, some 160 strong, are ready to go union.

Fifty percent plus one of the employees must vote yes for the drivers to unionize, they said.

“I think we’ll get that and more,” Hill said. “People want to be treated with dignity on the job.”

Hill says she has been a bus driver for four years, first with the district, then with Durham when the company took over bus operations in July 2011. She says she believes the union can only be a good thing for the employees.

“I don’t see a downside at all,” she said. “We want to drive up the standards; we want job protection; we need a voice in the workplace. We want someone to have our back. I’m a single mother of three and I just can’t see myself coming in one day to tell my children I don’t have a job anymore.”

Organization efforts have been ongoing since the beginning of the year and feedback seems to be strongly pro union, they said.

“We really got on the ball the first of the year,” Isom said. “We’ve been working very hard to get the word out.”

Hill and Isom also said the company, for all its rhetoric of not hindering union activity, is actively campaigning against them.

“We’re seeing all this anti-union material around the office,” Hill said. “Everybody got a packet in the mail at home over the holiday. If they say they don’t oppose it, then why are they putting out all this anti-union material everywhere?”

Most Durham employees nationwide do not belong to unions, but the company does not oppose employees engaging in union activity, Dave Brabender, Durham School Services Regional Manager said.

“The company feels it is very important for employees to vote – and to vote how they honestly feel,” Brabender said. “The company would never hinder that.”

Nonetheless, Brabender noted that, while a union can make promises, it can’t actually deliver on them – that ultimately falls to the company. When Durham Dorchester District 2 contracted with DD2, the company hired the drivers at the same wages the district paid them, and gave them a pay increase, he said. They also have benefits through Durham as well, Brubender said.

Currently, drivers are paid $10.50 per hour for driving their regular assigned routes and are paid $9 an hour for driving any extracurricular activities, he said. The reason for that is because extracurricular activity driving is voluntary extra duty, not assigned responsibility.

Brubender also said that each contract is based on a separate set of circumstances and one must look at the entire picture rather than individual parts.

“There are a lot of things that play into it,” he said.

The Teamsters have a strong and growing presence in South Carolina, L.D. Fletcher, president of Local 509 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said. Thus far, the Teamsters have unionized Durham drivers in Beaufort and Charleston counties. Since that time, the union has successfully negotiated contracts to increase wages and bring added protection to workers who otherwise would not have a voice, Fletcher said.

Fletcher noted that the union does not solicit membership; workers who believe their employers are disparately treating them seek out the union.

DD2 officials say the district does not have an interest in whether the drivers unionize; that is an issue between Durham and its employees.

DD2 outsourced bus operations to Durham in July 2011. The current bus fleet is still owned and maintained by the state of South Carolina.

The contract runs year to year, in this case from July 1, 2011 until June 30, 2012, and calls for the district to pay Durham $136.19 per bus per day to operate the fleet. At the end of the contract year, the DD2 board of trustees can renegotiate with Durham or seek another provider.

If the Durham drivers join the Teamsters, then the District will have to recognize and negotiate with the union, Fletcher said. If thedistrict decides to contract with another bus service provider whose employees are union members, the district would have to recognize and work with that union as well, Fletcher noted.

“If they were to happen to choose a contractor that is not unionized, we’ll just start the organization process again,” he said.

The election will be held today at Durham offices on Boone Hill Road. Polls close at 5:30 p.m. and the results should be known shortly after, Hill said.

Tatum's colleague, reporter Judy Watts, delivered the update later that day:

Teamsters Local 509 is celebrating tonight after winning the vote to unionize Durham Bus Services workers who drive the buses for District 2 Schools.

The vote was 85 to 66, according to organizer Sebrina Isom.

“There were bus drivers and supporters there very happy and hugging each other. They were saying ‘ain’t no stopping us now,’” Isom said in a telephone interview at about 6:30 p.m. tonight.

“Some of them gave me a hug and said they really appreciated all the work I and the others had done to make this happen,” Isom said.

School bus drivers across South Carolina, take note: If the legislature follows through on its promise to privatize your jobs, which leaves you without state health and retirement benefits, this is your alternative. I recommend getting in touch with your co-workers Annette Hill and Sabrina Isom now, to begin preparing yourselves and your co-workers for the transition.

Fairfield hires Charlotte firm for supt search

Hope that Broad Superintendents Academy experience isn't part of the search criteria. From reporter James Denton:

After more than two hours in executive session Tuesday night, the Fairfield County School Board voted unanimously to hire a firm to spearhead their search for a new superintendent.

Board Chairwoman Andrea Harrison said Wednesday that the Board had selected Coleman Lew and Associates of Charlotte to lead their search for new leadership, and that the District should have the position posted by Friday. The Board met with the firm’s president, Kenneth D. Clark Jr., during Tuesday’s closed session.

“Coleman Lew gave a very exceptional presentation,” Harrison said. “Hopefully, they will be able to help us avoid some of the pitfalls of the past.”

Harrison said the Board was actually one step ahead of the game, having already completed a candidate profile, upon which Coleman Lew would base their search.

According to the company’s Web site, Coleman Lew and Associates was founded in 1979 and focuses primarily on searches for corporate executives. While the firm has, in the past, successfully completed searches for college presidents, the Web site states, and is currently conducting a search for an executive director of a charter school, Harrison said this would be their first search for a superintendent.

“They look more for leadership skills and management skills,” Harrison said, “but our profile includes superintendent experience. I have confidence they’ll bring in someone who’s a good leader but also has superintendent experience.”

Harrison said the Board hopes to have the position filled by July 1, and because of that sense of urgency, Coleman Lew will be expediting their services. While the District will post the position and recruit candidates, Harrison said, Coleman and Lew would cull through the resumes and whittle down the list of prospective candidates.

The typical fee charged by Coleman Lew, Harrison said, is 30 percent of the salary of the position. But, since the firm is not providing the entire array of its services, the cost to the District will be a flat fee based upon the amount of time spent. That figure has yet to be negotiated, Harrison said.

“Once they start sifting through resumes, that’s when the clock starts,” Harrison said. “I don’t think it (Coleman Lew) was a bad choice, but it might cost us a little bit more money. But the Board will try to constrain those costs as much as possible.”

Zais re-election campaign visits Orangeburg

I read, then re-read, this article in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat last week, and came to the same conclusion each time: State Superintendent Mick Zais traveled to Orangeburg and told educators he was there to hear about their successes, but delivered news and statistics to them that could only have dampened their spirits.

What message does it send, when educators are invited to give their superintendent good news about the hard work they're doing, and he responds to them with a laundry list of complaints and critiques to illustrate what isn't being accomplished?

Is Mick Zais the best we can do in South Carolina? Have we gone so far around the bend that there's no way back?


Administrators at some local high schools had the chance to sit down and share their triumphs and concerns with S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais last week.

Zais visited Orangeburg Consolidated School District Four on Tuesday. He spent about 45 minutes talking with Principal Jeannie Monson at Carver-Edisto Middle School before taking a tour of the school.

“I want to hear what’s working for you, which actually gives you a chance to brag or celebrate your successes,” Zais said. “I want to understand your concerns and issues and problems.”

Monson cited the use of data, the recruitment of excellent teachers and their professional development as the means of moving Carver-Edisto forward academically. Teachers use benchmarks such as the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards to create notebooks that record student scores and their goals and show what needs to be re-taught to them, she said.

What a great report, to show that data collection is being used by teachers and administrators to diagnose issues and tailor classroom instruction strategies, to demonstrate the value of hiring well-qualified and committed educators, and to emphasize the benefits of great professional development.

Kudos to Principal Monson and to Carver-Edisto Middle School!

But Zais took all that great information and delivered a stinkbomb in its place.

Zais spoke about his educational vision. He said his number one priority is literacy.

Students learn to read from K-4 through the third grade, he said. After that, they read to learn.

“Sadly, in South Carolina, 38 percent of our fourth graders are functionally illiterate,” Zais said.

That’s a significant problem. Students who can’t read can’t learn social studies or science or even math, he said.

Instruction needs to be differentiated if every child is going to be reading on grade level by the fourth grade, Zais said. A child who is struggling with learning to read needs to be with a teacher who knows how to teach struggling readers, he said.

Grouping children on performance level may not be necessary in every academic area, but in certain subjects, it just doesn’t work to put all students in the same classroom and expect them to learn the same material on the same schedule, the education superintendent said.

Tailoring the education to fit each student is important throughout school, according to Zais. Technical education is a viable goal for some students, he said.

“All kids don’t need Algebra II to make a good living and support their family — sometimes statistics might be more valuable,” Zais said. “I think we have an all too common assumption that if you don’t go to a four-year college, you’re going to be a failure.”

Zais also spoke about the value of proper leadership in schools.

“The foremost job of the principal is to recruit, develop, motivate and retain great teachers,” he said. “All the research says effective teachers will stay in high poverty schools if they have effective leadership. If they’re abandoning ship, the leadership is not effective.”

Had Monson not just illustrated the value of an effective leader? Then what was Zais's point?

Or was this just an opportunity to deliver another stump speech in his campaign for re-election? If so, the next three years are going to be long and ugly.

Teachers, principals and superintendents weren't Zais's only targets in Orangeburg. He apparently has problems with Orangeburg's board members, too:

Zais also called for school boards to understand their duties and support their superintendents and principals.

“The board’s job is to hire the superintendent, not run the school district,” he said.

They set policy, but shouldn’t take charge of operations, Zais said. The problem is some boards don’t understand the difference between the two, he said.

He cannot be accused of subtlety, our state superintendent.

What convinces me that this was just a stump speech opportunity for Zais was his reiteration of his last campaign's chief ideological proposals: merit pay, and paying teachers according to student test scores.

Another area Zais addressed was teacher pay.

“We don’t pay our best teachers nearly enough, and we pay our worst teachers far too much,” he said. “I think people should be rewarded for what they do.”

Zais said he’s trying to move the state toward better pay for successful teachers by linking them to student success.

“I have a real problem with where we measure the number of students who make 70 percent or more,” he said.

Students who score above or below that and make real progress are not mapped under today’s standards, and teachers don’t get credit for boosting them up, he said.

Unfortunately, Carver-Edisto wasn't the only school subjected to a visit from our present superintendent.

Zais also visited the Hunter-Kinard-Tyler schools, which have new principals this year. Hezekiah Massey is at the middle/high school, and Francina Gregory is at the elementary school.

Last year, high school students increased HSAP scores by 13 points, and eighth grade students’ scores on the PASS test increased from 11 to 21 percent in every subject area. Their score in social studies went up by 25 percent.

These new principals seem to be very dedicated, very energetic, Zais said.

“Looking at the report cards, they’ve been able to demonstrate pretty significant progress within just one year,” he said.

Obviously, it takes more than a year to turn a school around, but if the principals have the support of the school board and the superintendent, District Four can move forward, he said.

Massey said changing the mind-set of students was the main thing that contributed to the school’s success. It was expecting more of them and teaching them that a “C” or a “D” won’t do when they’re capable of making an “A,” he said.

The school also exposed students to the idea that they can go to college, he said.

“We want to make sure the fact that they may not have come from a family of college graduates — that they may even be the first one in their family to go to college — doesn’t deter them from pursuing the goal of attending a higher education institution,” Massey said.

Superintendent Brenda Turner said the district’s conversation with Zais gave some insight on more creative ways to engage the community in training students to learn to read on grade level by the end of the third grade.

She said it was a conversation about some of the celebrations going on in the school. Zais also talked with both principals at H-K-T about using resources to provide meaningful learning opportunities for all students, she said.

Remember Sammy Davis Jr.?

Remember "The Candy Man Can," his cover of a song from the original Willy Wonka film?

If so, you may remember this lyric:
"Who can take tomorrow, dip it in a dream,
Separate the sorrow, collect up all the cream?
The Candy Man can..."

Our superintendent, Mick Zais, is the opposite of the Candy Man.

Give him good news, and he turns it into bad.

Give him something happy, he'll leave you feeling sad.

Three long years more, folks. Three long years.

Pray the damage can be undone.

Mills helped define state's economy, history

This item from the Anderson Independent-Mail, by reporter Jennifer Crossley Howard, is as fine a requiem for South Carolina's used mills and mill workers as any I've seen, and it deserves an audience across South Carolina and beyond our borders.

J.L. Gaillard uses three words to explain why he lived 90 years on a mill hill. He leans back in his armchair, widens his eyes and smiles.

“I was captured,” he says.

He worked 39 of those years for Courtenay Manufacturing Co. in Newry, near Seneca, first picking up quills that fell from looms in 1936. He was 16 years old.

Gaillard made $12 a week then. When the plant closed in 1975 he had worked his way into management, but by then life at textile mills had changed forever in the South. Car manufacturing plants culled mill workers with promises of higher wages and better working conditions. Cotton fabric production moved to Asia and Mexico, where it remains.

Many mills like Courtenay shuttered. Thousands of jobs went away, leaving shattered windows and abandoned brick behemoths that had once knit communities together. Simple cotton mills have long been extinct in America, but their heartbreaking stories echo through the Upstate.

The four-story Newry Mill, where Gaillard and hundreds of others toiled, sits sunken and dilapidated at the edge of its mill village, hard to see behind overgrown trees and weeds. Faded graffiti is tattooed inside its brick walls and trash is scattered on the floor where 635 looms once stood. If the building were a person, its head would hang low.

In their heyday, mill villages like the one in Newry contained post offices, grocery stores, churches and schools.

“It was a wonderful place,” said Gaillard, who is 92. “The neighbors in 110 houses had commonality. You didn’t have a rich man here and a poor man there. You had all common attitude and philosophy.”

If a man was born into a mill family, there was an obligation to uphold.

“You’re sort of captured into an experience,” Gaillard said. “Daddy worked at the mill, granddaddy worked at the mill. That’s what you’re expected to do, go to work and help pay expenses. I did it because I didn’t know anything else to compare it with.”

When Gaillard started working at the Newry mill, it produced 36-inch cloth squares for diapers, dresses and men’s undershirts. The cloth left the mill and went to a bleachery, which applied patterns to it. Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck bought the material. Gaillard moved from emptying quills to working in the cloth department. By 1957 he had married Mae Honicutt and had two children. Elvis Presley’s album “Loving You” hit No. 1 that year, and it was almost a century after the Civil War ended. But cotton was still king.


After the Civil War, northern textile owners quickly embraced the South for its mill landscape, moving production of transparent, coarse cloth to plants powered by the region’s rivers and streams.

Railroads, cotton and a thriving population attracted mill companies to the Upstate. By 1905, one in every six white South Carolinians lived in a textile community, and there were roughly 170 mills. In 1950 there were 1.3 million mill workers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1996 slightly more than half a million remained. As of September, the projected number of textile mill employees in South Carolina had fallen to 15,273.

In the eastern part of the state were mostly black sharecroppers. Mill owners reasoned that white farmers would need a new industry as farming became less productive, said Howard Bodenhorn, an economic historian at Clemson University.

The former Defore-Milliken plant on U.S. 123 piqued his interest in Upstate mills.

“You can actually see the old fountain in front of the mill and a whole mill village behind it,” he said, pointing out his office window in Sirrine Hall.

One of his students explored child labor in her term paper, and she found startling facts.

Some employees at the Pelzer Manufacturing Company began working when they were as young as 12 years old in the early 1900s, Bodenhorn said. But they were the exception; starting work at 14 or 15 was more common.

Others, like Gaillard, waited longer before they started rotating shifts.

When Newry workers ventured into Seneca, townspeople liked to call them lintheads because the cotton that flew from looms stuck to their clothes and hair.

Gaillard wore his cotton with pride.

“The president of the United States could call me a linthead,” he said. “I wouldn’t care.”

The Newry mill owned 700 or 800 acres where employees and their families worked and played. A bell in the mill tower rang at 9 p.m., when kids and adults were supposed to be indoors.

“It didn’t always work, but if you kept your mouth shut, nobody knew you were out,” Gaillard said.

Roaming the hilly woods around the plant, “We kids thought we owned the whole world,” he said. “We’d camp on it. The Boy Scouts would use it for stuff. It was a commonality that there will never be again.”


Down the road from Clemson, after a left turn at a barbecue restaurant, is the La France community. An elementary school sits across from a one-story brick building that started as the oldest mill in Anderson County. La France Industries, once known as Pendleton Manufacturing Company, persevered when other mills closed, abandoning cotton fabric production to manufacture synthetic fabrics, including car upholstery.

Donald “Jose” Hubbard witnessed the mill’s fruitful years when workers and their families populated the mill hill where he has lived since 1966. Back then, workers didn’t need cars to get to work; they walked across a swinging bridge. Hubbard was 18 when he started working in the beaming department 48 years ago. He said he was asked to retire last September.

“I wanted to stay for 50 years so I could get that extra money, but they don’t want that,” he said.

His dogs Molly and Coco lounged on the porch of his red-trimmed house one afternoon while he hit golf balls in his generous front yard. Hubbard wears a baseball cap that says “I love my job. It’s the work I hate.” He points to neighboring houses and recites who lives there. He talks about how many years they worked at the mill and who has “gone to glory.”

Families with no connection to the mill are moving into the mostly faded mill village houses with porches. Some have two front doors so a husband and wife working different shifts didn’t wake each other. Financial records from 1947 show that Pendleton Manufacturing Company sold 74 houses for $102,500 to residents. Willie Mae Dacus paid $1,400 for her house at 10 Third St.

The mill first operated as Pendleton Manufacturing Company in 1838 and later made blankets for the Confederate Army. A new 675,000-square-foot building was constructed in the late ’60s, and by 2000 about 500 workers were there. Retirees estimate that there are about half as many workers now. La France Industries President Judson Boehmer declined to be interviewed, and the company would not allow Independent Mail reporters to tour the plant.

Former workers like Gary Padgett are surprised the mill is still open. He worked at La France for 15 years as a cloth doffer before he left to work at mills in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

“If it lasts another year, it will be lucky,” Padgett said.

Hubbard made $1.25 an hour in 1964, and he earned $8.43 an hour when he left last year, he said. He is glad he got the chance to make an honest living. “They could have fired me two or three times,” he said.


The Liberty Denim plant in Pickens County was not as lucky as La France.

The plant closed last December, two weeks before Christmas. It was a casualty of the times, said Jack Woodson, director of operations at Glen Raven Custom Fabrics.

Few denim plants exist in the United States, but Liberty Denim lasted longer than most. It had operated at 101 Mills Ave. since 2002, in the old Greenwood Mills building. The closing happened four months after Lewis Edward Smith II fell into a roller machine and died.

Along with the School District of Pickens County, Liberty Denim was one of the largest employers in town.

Machinery was removed from the mill in mid-March. Liberty Mayor Mike Sheriff said he dreaded the day that happened. “That’s when I knew it was over,” he said.

Ray Farley, executive director of Alliance Pickens, said he knew nothing about the mill’s closing negotiations except what he read in the Independent Mail.

Efforts to reach Liberty Denim representatives were unsuccessful.

There are only four companies left in the United States that produce denim cloth, said Mike Hubbard, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. Mount Vernon Mills has a plant in Spartanburg, and Cone Denim is headquartered in Greensboro, N.C. Denim North America is in Columbus, Ga., and Plains Cotton Cooperative Association is in Littlefield, Texas.

Glen Raven Custom Fabrics in Anderson County was once a simple mill like Liberty Denim, but it became one of the first mills to make synthetic fabrics in the 1950s. It now produces materials for awnings, pillows and indoor and outdoor furniture. Its Anderson plant employs 700 people.

Like most industries, the mill weathered layoffs at the height of the economic crisis. There were 70 in 2009, according to the South Carolina Department of Commerce. Closings will claim every mill if they don’t change with the times, Woodson said.

“It’s not just a textile story; industry evolves,” he said.

A walk through the sprawling plant reveals a clean, modern space with more machines than humans, spinning earth-tone thread. Both Woodson and Randy Blackston, vice president of manufacturing at the Anderson plant, have textiles in their blood.

Woodson’s father worked at the Haynesworth mill on McDuffie Street in Anderson. He worked shifts among the five mills that stood blocks apart in the 1940s and 1950s. Blackston’s grandfather manufactured spinning needles.

Today, the Glen Raven plant’s air is purified, and a full-time nurse practitioner and occupational health nurse tend to any injuries. No one would dream of calling workers lintheads, because remnants from fabrics are not tolerated.

Because of such improvements, Blackston is convinced workers are living in the glory days of mills.

“I don’t think that was the heyday,” he said. “I think now’s their heyday.”


Lynn Rumley, mayor of Cooleemee, N.C., midway between Charlotte and Greensboro, preserves the memory of mill towns that she says embodied an all-American philosophy of hard work, faith in God and raising families.

“I know it’s not the American Revolution, but it’s an important part of history,” she said.

It’s a history that is taught in Cooleemee schools, thanks to her work with the Textile Heritage Center in her town. The first class learned about mills in 1997, and now their children study the curriculum.

Second graders learn about poundings. Families who move to Cooleemee are welcomed with a pound of sugar, flour and other non-perishables.

“We try to keep these traditions alive because they worked, Rumley said. “Despite the fact that they came from different places, they knew how to knit together a real neighborhood.”

Rumley says mill education is just as important to children as the three R’s. “Their pride in this place has been renewed by our heritage work,” she said.


Long before mills experienced competition from foreign labor, they faced another challenge.

A wave of Northern union organizers were met with strict intolerance in the Upstate. The Knights of Labor arrived in 1880 to recruit members. Mill owners retaliated by firing potential organizers and preventing them from getting jobs at other mills, according to information at the Anderson County Museum.

The resistance to organized labor in South Carolina continues more than 130 years later, but was solidified during the mill era, said Howard Bodenhorn, the economic historian from Clemson University.

“The mill owners clearly did not want unionized mills, and the politicians supported the mill owners, not the mill workers certainly in the 1930s and 1940s,” he said.

Union organizers threatened unity at mill villages, Gaillard said, dividing families and friends.

“It was a time I had never seen in my life, and a time I hope never to see again,” he said.

He was in high school in the 1930s when organizers came to the Newry mill village. He lost one friend “because my people were anti-union and his people were union. He got so he wouldn’t speak to me,” Gaillard said.

A landmark union standoff in 1934 left the blood of seven dead men on Honea Path streets. The shooting happened at the Chiquola Mill, and erupted out of the national General Textile Strike of 1934.

The end of World War II marked the beginning of a shrinking workforce for mills. Men came home after seeing a world of opportunity. Auto and energy companies promised higher pay and better working conditions.

In May 1975, the Newry mill closed, Abney Mills, which owned the Newry mill, was headquartered in Greenwood, and Gaillard had suspected the company had given up on it.

“I could tell by the upkeep; there was no money being spent,” he said.

By then, much of the production had moved overseas.

“I don’t know why they didn’t protect our local industry,” Gaillard said. “For the older people who lived it and experienced it, it’s sad. And it’s sadder that the federal government allowed it to happen.”

The mills provided their workers the path to a better life. Jerry Davis was an electrical apprentice at the Utica WestPoint Stevens plant in the 1970s. He left for another job and returned in the 1980s.

“I didn’t stay away long because they called me back on account of those 100-year-old telephone poles,” he said.

The Utica mill manufactured sheets and pillowcases.

Davis, who is 56, grew up on Goddard Avenue across from the old mill YMCA, which is now a grassy lot. The cedar shake YMCA was demolished when Davis was a boy in the 1960s.

He cried when it was torn down.

“We all sat on the bank in front of the house and watched a big crane knock it into a big pile of rubble,” Davis said.

The federal government did the same thing to textile jobs, he said, leaving a void of employment for the middle class.

“I don’t know why our government doesn’t understand that you’re always going to have a group of people who need a particular job they can learn and work day in and day out,” he said.

The federal government recently took a baby step toward keeping production in the United States. In February, President Obama said he would ask Congress to reward businesses that keep jobs home by reducing the top rate of the corporate tax code to 28 percent. That’s down 7 percent, and would favor manufacturers that set their maximum effective rate at 25 percent.

Such a proposal would have been handy 10 years ago, Bodenhorn said.

“The mills it’s going to help are those right on the cusp like Liberty Denim (was),” he said. “If you’re a mill that’s just completely out of date and not competitive, I can’t imagine the tax break would be big enough to overcome that kind of problem.”

Gaillard still has a house in Newry that he cannot walk in alone. He broke his hip a year and a half ago when he fell there, and he has lived at an assisted living home in Seneca ever since.

The biographies of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and denim pioneer Claude Levi-Strauss sit on his bookshelf, and a thick dictionary is open on the desk in his room. He started writing poetry long after his mill days ended. He explores the complexity of emotion that accompanies age.

“I try to stick to the real-life problems when I write,” Gaillard said.

Mill life provides inspiration.

The image of a South Carolina mill village has frayed over the years, but former workers like him readily share their war stories.

They are places where some residents answer the door holding shotguns, but welcome strangers interested in talking about the old mills.

Times got hard and then got harder, but Gaillard would do it all over again.

“If when I die God would give me a choice of where to be born and raised up as a kid” — he pauses and points firmly in the direction of the mill — “I’d choose Newry. We were happy.”

Re-enactments bring history to life

South Carolina has a colorful history, and I'm glad to see that re-enactments are being used to help teach our history to children in public schools, as in the case of the Battle of Anderson, as reported by the Anderson Independent-Mail.

Early Friday morning, the tents were set up and the camp fires were burning. The large bronze rifle was primed to fire, and the cell phones were all tucked away on the bus.

Friday was education day at the Honea Path base for this year’s Battle of Anderson re-enactment. Scores of elementary and middle school students showed up to see what life was like during the Civil War.

From two-man tents, the kind that often slept three or four soldiers, to elaborate walled tents where officers slept with all the comforts of home, the battlefield was readied to show students from all over the Upstate how soldiers and other citizens lived in the 1800s.

According to historians, the Battle of Anderson was fought in May 1865, three weeks after the end of the Civil War. Historians say a group of students from The Citadel happened upon a small group of Union soldiers. The skirmish, said to be the last to take place east of the Mississippi, resulted in no Confederate injuries and few Union casualties. Where the battle happened is debated among historians, but most agree that it was in Anderson County.

This year, on a parcel of land on S.C. 20 in Honea Path, nearly 150 years later, more than 100 people will gather to participate in a re-enactment of the battle.

Part of the goal of the event this weekend, organizers said, is to bring history to life for those who attend.

“Who won the war? The North. So the North got to write the history books,” said Berlin Owen, a re-enactor from Rosman, N.C. “This is our chance to teach children our side of the story.”

Students from Wright Elementary School in Honea Path-based Anderson School District 2, Iva Elementary in Iva-based Anderson School District 3, Varennes School of Communications and Technology in Anderson School District 5, and several home-schooling groups, were on hand Friday to see how soldiers lived, fought and died. Groups of students moved from station to station, listening to presenters talk about secession, life in camp, Civil War-era weapons, fighting on horseback and other aspects of life at the time of the Civil War.

“I liked the tents,” said Ellison Pruitt, 10, from Wright Elementary. “I think it would have been really hard to sleep in one like that. And it would have been really hard to live back then because it would be harder to get food.”

Owen said most people don’t know what a soldier’s life was like — that they had to scrounge for their own food; that more died from disease and exposure than being shot; and that they fought because they felt their homes were being invaded.

Erica Shoff, a fourth-grade teacher at Wright Elementary, said being able to see and smell and touch the artifacts brought by the re-enactors made history more real to the students. As part of South Carolina state educational standards, students learn about South Carolina history in third grade, the Civil War in fourth grade and reconstruction in fifth grade.

“It really brings it home for them,” Shoff said of the education day. “It really helps them connect with the people who lived it.”

I wonder if organizers are planning for a re-enactment of the Chiquola Mill Massacre of September 1934? That, too, would be a fine event to use in the teaching of our state's history to children.

In fact, because it's much more recent that the Battle of Anderson, it might make for fascinating discussion before and after the re-enactment, to learn if any children had relatives working in the Chiquola Mill during that period; or had relatives among the 100 "special deputies" appointed by the mayor and mill manager, Frank Beacham, on the morning of September 7; or had relatives among the seven who were shot and killed by those "special deputies" from the mill windows during that morning's strike.

The old mill is still standing, but it's not in good repair, so it's likely not a good place to tour. Still, children could stand on the street and observe the windows from which the shooters killed the striking workers.

And they could gather for lunch at the little park in Honea Path where a memorial was finally created 15 or so years ago.

There's nothing like a re-enactment to make history come to life for our children.