Some of the numbers on the latest South Carolina school report cards were misleading at best and the confusion about a statistic designed to measure student poverty could cause confusion in the way the state spends millions of education dollars.
In some ways, the “poverty index” is a multi-million dollar statistic. The report cards, issued by the state for every school and school district statewide, show the poverty index in decline. In fact, the numbers dropped at every school district in the Upstate.
But teachers, principals and district administrators said those numbers don’t match the reality in the classroom.
For example, the students at Grove Elementary weren’t born with a silver spoon. Instead, in 2014, 99% of the students qualified for free of reduced lunches because, under federal guidelines, their families were poor enough to qualify.
This school year, Principal Deborah Bauer said the number of students at Grove who struggle with poverty continued to rise.
“It has gone up noticeably. The involvement that we have through our mental health counselor and our guidance counselor and our social worker is much more intense,” Bauer said.
District administrators in Anderson and Spartanburg Counties gave similar assessments, that student poverty had gone up in 2015.
That’s what made the state report cards seem so strange.
The report cards claimed that the poverty index went down at every district.
“I’m not sure they ever visited Grove Elementary,” Bauer said.
That index is more than a statistical anomaly because it’s tied, by law, to millions of tax dollars, especially through programs that benefit early childhood education.
Getting that number wrong would put some schools and students in a state of financial limbo.
For example, if the poverty index for a school district rises above 70%, the state kicks in millions of dollars for programs like 4-k.
Anderson District 5 is one of three in the Upstate that met that mark for the first time in 2014.
That triggered the new money, which allowed schools like North Pointe Elementary to create 4-k classrooms. In Anderson 5 there are 400 children enrolled in those classes with more on a waiting list.
“I didn’t realize that that great of need was out there,” said Brenda Kelly who helped create the district’s 4-k program.
Now, based on the new report cards, Anderson 5 would fall below that 70% threshold.
Like every other Upstate district, Anderson 5 appears to have had a miraculous turnaround in student poverty that doesn’t make historical sense.
7News looked at the state’s poverty index for every Upstate district for more than a decade. In almost every case the index went up every year. The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University said there was no explanation for the sudden turnaround in the state reports.
The state changed the math. Despite the claims on every state report card, the poverty index didn’t go down from 2014, the state simply re-defined the term.
Until this year, the index was based on the number of students who got free or reduced price lunches. This year some of the state’s poorest schools started feeding free meals to all of the kids. That meant it was harder to track those students who qualified under the old math.
So, the Department of Education developed a complicated new formula, adding a half dozen new measurements. It’s a totally new statistic that has the same name. The new math got new results but because it uses the same name, it’s still tied to all the old funding formulas.
State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said her office would work with lawmakers to protect districts, like Anderson 5, already spending that poverty index money.
“We’re going to be going to the legislature to ask them to hold harmless those districts so that no one will lose any funding,” Spearman said.
That help may be too little, too late for thousands of other Upstate students. Anderson 4 and Spartanburg 1 were within two percentage points of hitting 70% after 2014. That’s under the old math.
Now, while student poverty continued to climb upward, the statistics push those districts further away from the new early childhood education money.
Spearman said there was little her office could do.
“We’ll be working with the legislature to get as many children into these programs as we can. There is a pot of money and it has to be divided up and there has to be some parameters on how it goes out,” Spearman said.