Eating our seed corn

Posted Monday, January 19th, 2015 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Law and Culture, Of Interest to General Public

Two recent news stories, one local and one national, highlight just how badly our society is doing caring for the majority of our children, especially our neediest children.

Locally, on January 12, 2015, national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Matthew T. Richardson, partner at the South Carolina law firm Wyche P.A., filed suit against Governor Nikki Haley and Acting State Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) Susan Alford. The response from my fellow family law attorneys to this lawsuit has been uniformly positive. We see firsthand how South Carolina’s child protective services system systematically fails to protect children from abusive parents and then fails to find these children stable placements.

A January 17, 2015 editorial in Greenville Online from the lawyers bringing this lawsuit describes a thirty-year history of South Carolina government’s recognition of the deficiencies in the child protective services system and its failure to remedy these deficiencies. It also highlights a few recent foster care horror stories, include a seventeen year-old boy who has had twenty-eight placements since age three and a nine year-old girl with serious mental health problems who has had thirteen placements and at least six caseworkers in four years.

This lawsuit against DSS comes two months to the day after our state Supreme Court, in the case of Abbeville County School District v. State, found numerous constitutional deficiencies in the requirement that there be a system of free public schools that affords each student the opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education. That lawsuit has taken over fifteen years to resolve, and the state still fights it. The remedy demanded by the Supreme Court may take years to develop and then years of litigation may follow to determine whether that remedy is sufficient. Meanwhile a generation of South Carolina children has received an inadequate education within the geographic region that has been labeled the “corridor of shame.”

The national news story is from a January 16, 2015 Washington Post article noting that “[f]or the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families…” This statistic highlights the increasing level of child poverty within the United States, along with the increasing segregation of grade school education–with the well-off sending their children to private schools while the majority of children languish in increasingly underfunded public schools.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in California in the 1960’s and 70’s. At that time California had one of the best public education systems in the world. While schools in poor and minority school districts were sometimes substandard, the public schools in working and middle class neighborhoods were quite good and the public schools in upper-middle class and wealthy neighborhoods were exceptional.

The three-tier public college system was designed to offer options to anyone desiring to pursue a post-secondary education. The minimal-cost community college system was open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED, and offered two-year associates degrees. The University of California system contained some of the best public universities in the world and was designed to teach California’s top graduating high school students at a relatively low tuition.

The intermediate Cal State system was open to anyone who had received an associates degree from the community college system (as well as high school graduates from approximately the top third of their class). Cal State enabled anyone who lived in or near even a mid-sized city the opportunity to pursue college and graduate studies. Combined with a very well funded public library system, California did a relatively good job of educating its citizens. I had friends from poor families go through this system, receive an excellent education, and become the 1%. My own mother was able to pursue a graduate degree while raising three children because a public university was mere miles from our suburban home.

However, the better-off resented their tax dollars being used to fund the education of the less well-off. Even upper-middle class suburbanites, who lived where they did because of the exceptional schools that were funded by their tax dollars, began to resent the high property taxes that were used to fund these schools. Thus, in 1978 Proposition 13 passed, greatly lowering property taxes.  This gutted the public education system. Similar “reform” has followed elsewhere within the United States. Now most states’ top pubic universities are out of reach financially for ambitious students from poor and working class families.  Rising community college tuition has made college unaffordable for many students from poor families.

While secondary schools typically remain good or better in suburban and wealthy communities, the schools in poor and even working class neighborhoods are lagging behind schools in other first world counties. The greater differences in the quality of education drives the greater inequalities in income, which in turn increases the differences in the quality of education. Our culture and political system seem to have little interest in stopping, let alone reversing, this trend.

Meanwhile our culture still demands obedience from children who have received educations that leave them unprepared to develop their attributes into socially productive and financially remunerative skills. It expects children who have languished in the foster care system to become law-abiding citizens when they age out. When these children don’t meet these demands, our culture will have few qualms demeaning their misbehavior as reflecting a failure of character and will not hesitate to incarcerate them if they break the law.

We like to claim we exhibit “family values” but the deficiencies within our family-oriented public institutions demonstrate a failure to nurture our children. America is eating its seed corn.

4 thoughts on Eating our seed corn

  1. Michael Durkee says:

    This item will probably not win you many fans in Charleston or the other wealthier enclaves within the state, but you are correct in your observation about the linkages between unequal funding for public schools and subsequent low achievement, leading to further income-based segregation and behavior which we criminalize and then view as lack of character. Where is it written in stone that the only way to fund public schools is through local property taxes? Most civilized nations see education as just another responsibility of government, to be funded through general revenues. Thanks for including me on distribution. Mike

  2. Matt Stimac says:


    Education without proper discipline in any of the school systems can lead only to stagnant education. That’s what I have seen over the years. I taught school in the Miami school system 69 through 71 and the lack of discipline in the minority schools was atrocious to say the least. As I went to the more affluent neighborhoods, and Cuban neighborhoods discipline was needed, but those kids responded with respect and teacher were able to teach and students able to learn. I think the lack of parenting in the minority areas is one big reason for the big down fall of our education for the minority kids. Tough to change. Good luck with this under taking.

  3. DAD says:

    Greg as your father, a California resident since 1963 and a beneficiary of Prop 13 I wholeheartedly agree with your blog posting. Even as a beneficiary of Prop 13 I always thought there should be a means testing to limit the benefits of Prop 13. Of course then I would be chastised as a left wing tax the rich kook. We live in a very selfish society that has most people only concerned about their well being. They cannot conceive of a society where the well of each individual ultimately results in the well being of all. A friend of mine years ago had a saying patterned after IBM. He called it the IGM Society, I’ll get mine!


  4. When DSS can do it’s job with a good social work who isn’t overwhealmed, wonderful things can be accomplished and children are saved. However, that’s almost impossible now. The Governor is determined to apply corportate bean counter values to child abuse intervention. That doesn’t work. DSS has never been my favorite agency, but they can’t possibly do their job now.

    I’ve watched education and child welfare struggle in SC for thirty years now. I can’t take the tired political talk about children seriously any longer.

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