Southern Lag

Some issues are a close call – it is hard to know what is the right thing to do. Technology and education is not one of these issues. It’s obvious that technology and education are the keys to success in the global economy of the 21st century, both for us as individuals and as a state.

The only question is: Why is SC so stupid about figuring this out and doing the right things?

laptopsWhile our experience in South Carolina is discouraging, we only have to look across the border 20 miles north of Charlotte to see an excellent example of what we are missing.

First, the bad news: the foundation has been laid for success, but the SC Legislature has refused to do their part. I was fortunate to be a part of an innovative project called One Laptop Per Child SC ( that raised over $1 million in private money to provide almost 3,000 laptops to every child in 15 schools across the state. After a year of evaluation, then Supt. of Education Jim Rex found that ‘dollar for dollar this computer will have a bigger impact in improving education that anything else we can do.’

Sadly, the Legislature refused to take the next step and provide the funding to expand the project. However, local school districts are now moving ahead on their own, with several good initiatives underway. Most recently, the Charleston County School District provided iPads to all the students in three low-performing high schools and three elementary schools, with an eye to expanding to the whole district.

While some schools in South Carolina are struggling to develop the right model, North Carolina’s East Mooresville Intermediate School has become what the NY Times has called ‘the de facto national model of the digital school.”

Three years ago, about the same time OLPC/SC was started, Mooresville issued 4,400 laptops to 4th thru 12th graders in five schools. As with the South Carolina pilot project, the Mooresville results have been overwhelmingly positive:

  • Graduation rates went from 80% to 91% in three years
  • Students who met proficiency requirements on reading, math and science tests went from 73% to 88%
  • Attendance is up and dropouts are down.

And if you assume that Mooresville is an affluent area, you would be dead wrong. Minorities make up 27% of the school and 40% are poor enough to receive free or reduced price lunches.

Here’s the bottom line on Mooresville in one sentence from the NY Times:

Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 distracts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student – $7,415.89 – but is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

This is about as good as it gets.

And  in terms of the costs, the story only gets better. In Mooresville, they lease the newest MacBook Air from Apple for $215 a year for a total of $1 million, and they spend an  additional $100,000 for software. Each family is asked to donate $50 to cover repairs but the fee is waived if they cannot afford it. In addition, the school district has negotiated a deal such that any family can have broadband access at home for only $9.99 a month.

An added cost bonus is reduced personnel expenditures. Mooresville was able to eliminate 65 jobs, including 37 teaching positions.

And what about South Carolina? We could easily afford to do what they have done in Mooresville. While the per student spending in Mooresville is $7, 415, in South Carolina it is over $11,000 . Simply duplicating Mooresville in South Carolina, without the savings of cutting positions, would cost only $250 per student, or less than 2% of what we are spending today.

However, in one sense, this is not about technology; it’s about changing the teaching culture of the school, and the computer is the tool to leverage this change. As Mooresville’s Superintendent says, “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction – preparing students for their future, not our past.”

Therein lies the great paradox – the computer is the tool or lever to change the teaching culture, and it costs virtually nothing to change a culture, just good leadership.

So, my original question remains: Why is SC so stupid about education and technology? The answer is the aforementioned ‘good leadership’. If we can’t get good leadership out of Columbia, then we need to change that leadership there, but also we, as citizens, need to lead the change in schools on the local level.

The Mooresville model is something special – but there is nothing there that cannot be duplicated all across South Carolina. Copying a good model is smart; ignoring the pathway to success when it is just over the state line, is just stupid.

Editor's note: This story also published at the Photo by mahlness via Flickr photostream, used with Creative Commons 2.0 License.
Phil Noble

Phil Noble

Phil Noble is a businessman from Charleston and he currently serves as President of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Noble is one of the leading experts in the US and internationally on the Internet and politics. Noble is the founder of PoliticsOnline and its affiliated company Phil Noble & Associates, an international public affairs consulting firm. Noble is a veteran of over 300 political campaigns and public affairs projects in 40 states and 30 countries. He has worked to elect the head of state in 15 countries.