No one can argue against wanting to live in an area with great schools. The debate, mainly among non-educators, is how to create better schools in order to attract quality teachers and staff and how to create an environment where students are learning and thinking instead of being taught to take a test. For each school in Charleston Constituent District 20 to be a top-tier school, parents, the community, business partners, nonprofits, educators, administrators, and elected officials must make a firm, long-term commitment. Empty promises and rhetoric cannot be tolerated.

While there is no perfect formula to creating top-tier schools, I do believe if each school has the same level playing field of resources and expertise, students will do better and our workforce will be stronger. I do not claim to have the silver bullet to solve our educational problems, but I do know that our priorities are out of order. If we spend more money educating a child rather than spending more money on an inmate, will we not have better-equipped schools, more teachers, smaller classrooms, better instruction, more opportunities for success, and greater accountability?

If we look at funding education as an investment and not a hindrance, all our schools would be in the top tier and all our communities would be safer, cleaner, healthier, and economically sound. While money is not the answer for everything, it’s on the same level as breathing. We need it to function, and too many of our schools are suffocating.

To be serious about educating all students, we must realize our children are not competing with each other. They are competing in a global society. They are competing in a fast-paced world and should not be left in the dust because their community or system failed them. Children in rural or poor areas should not start out behind because their school lacks equipment, has few or no supplies, or has no one to advocate on their behalf without advocating for themselves. We cannot negatively label children, provide excuses, or use them as pawns if they are to compete with those in India, China, Korea, and elsewhere. Too much is at stake for us not to do better.

Sometimes one wonders if we really want to educate every child. At times, it appears that those who want to cripple public education receive attention while those working to improve it, reform it, and create the level playing field are forgotten. Oftentimes support is not provided when tough decisions must be made. By the same token, one group should not be forced to sacrifice more than another. In the past, that perception has been a grave reality.

Education is often used as a political talking point. Nonprofits compete to provide services, educators get frustrated, administrators are transferred, parents with two to three jobs cannot check homework or attend school events, business partners provide outside resources for certain projects, and the community attempts to fill the gaps. And we wonder why only a few schools are able to break through and perform well while others struggle year after year.

Consider this: According to the Trident Literacy Association, 15 percent of adults in South Carolina have below-basic literacy skills. This means they can read a few words but not entire sentences or paragraphs. They can’t complete job applications, follow the directions on a medicine label, fill out a bank deposit slip, read to their children, or help their children with schoolwork. In the tri-county area, 53,000 adults over age 25 did not graduate from high school, and approximately 18,000 have less than a ninth-grade education. This translates to one person in seven being functionally illiterate. And 78 percent of the inmates at Charleston County Detention Center have low literacy skills. These are not my numbers — these are our numbers.

Nevertheless, all is not lost and progress is being made. District 20 is working on a literacy policy and more investments, partnerships, and opportunities exist. If we do not consistently make key improvements in education, what kind of future are we facing in South Carolina and Charleston? Once we realize that we can get more done when we do not care about who gets the credit, we can identify and support long-term priorities, and a level playing field will exist for all schools. Only then will all schools be in the top-tier.