Originally created 05/16/04

Thousands partake in rally for school funding, desegregation



COLUMBIA - More than 2,000 people from throughout the state gathered Saturday for a march and rally at the Statehouse to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools and press legislators for more education funding.

It was organized by a coalition for equity funding for school districts in the state who wanted to call attention to the money needs of poor and rural schools. Police estimated the crowd at 2,500.

"The future of every single child in this state is tied to education," former U.S. Education Secretary and former Gov. Dick Riley said. "No child should be denied an equal chance to get educated."

A low tax base in a child's town should not result in a cheap education, said Mr. Riley, who says the state has cut education funding by $450 million during the past four years.

"We can't have a large portion of our state going forward and prospering, while the rest of our population struggles to make ends meet and gives up hope," Mr. Riley said.

School spending fell as the state's finances reeled from three years of revenue shortfalls that brought reduced spending to all state agencies. Education's share of the overall state budget remained about the same.

Novelist Pat Conroy, who taught in a segregated school in 1969-1970, was the grand marshal for the march. He was fired after writing a letter to the superintendent that said, "separate but equal was a lie," he told the crowd.

"I never taught again," he said.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney and state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum also attended the event.

Descendants of South Carolinians who sued to desegregate schools in the Briggs v. Elliott lawsuit marched behind a Clarendon County school bus Saturday as children rode inside.

Phynise Pierson Witherspoon, 75, had no bus to ride when she was a student. The 1949 graduate of the then-segregated Scotts Branch High School walked nine miles each way to a school with outhouses, no running water and old textbooks.

"I definitely got cheated out of a better education," Ms. Witherspoon said. "We've had some changes, but it's not enough. And it's not moving fast enough."

The Briggs lawsuit was one of five included in the Brown v. Board of Education case, celebrating its 50th year Monday.

Court struggles over school funding continue in South Carolina, where eight rural school districts are suing the Legislature in a fight for better funding.

"That dream for quality education for all children - no matter where they're born, black or white, rich or poor - is unfulfilled," said Steve Morrison, a Columbia lawyer leading the school funding lawsuit.

p>