In a recent two-part series called "The Wrong Side of the Tracks" (Part 1, Part 2), the Orangeburg SC Times and Democrat takes a detailed look at South Carolina's "poverty corridor" and how the state compares with other Southern states in terms of education and economic development. From Part 2:

South Carolina has put its hope in four things - cheap labor, cheap taxes, cheap land, and right-to-work laws, says state Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, and this approach has held the state back while neighboring states have moved forward.

"In today's economy, that's a recipe for disaster," Matthews said recently.

It's the tale of two Souths, he said, the old South - Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, and the New South - Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. The New South is moving forward; the Old is falling behind.

"If you look at it, we're investing less in education and skills, and they are getting more because they are investing more in human capital," he said. "This state is too poor to invest in both tax cuts and knowledge and skills; those who invest in tax cuts won't compete."

State Sen. Matthews says that he no longer sees racial issues as the number one problem in the state. Poverty is number one. The two seem related, however, in the statistics he cites in Part 1:

Comparatively few stops are made along the I-95 Corridor, which finds itself in the poorer part of the state, moving from mile marker 1 at Jasper County to mile marker 200 in Dillon County. Since 2003, the poverty rate in the area has increased from 57.2 percent to 61.1 percent, he said.

[..]"Along I-95, only 9 percent of African-Americans have bachelor degrees," he said. "Income is tied to skills. The African-American family is carrying a 40 percent greater burden because they have 40 percent more children, and on top of that, they make 30 percent less money."

For those who study history, the I-95 corridor is the old short-staple cotton belt, Matthews explained. According to the most recent data, considering those in the 18-45 age group, only 15 percent of jobs in the area are for unskilled workers, which make up 52 percent of the population. Sixty-two percent of the available jobs require a two-year degree, and 22 percent a four-year degree, he said.

The No Child Left Behind program was supposed to "improve the performance of America's elementary and secondary schools while at the same time ensuring that no child is trapped in a failing school." Critics say that the program is too punitive, too inflexible, and not fully funded.

Democrats in Congress say that they will address these issues when NCLB comes up for renewal this year, and propose to fully fund the program among other reforms:

His aides said Mr. Kennedy was proposing incentives for states to work together toward common academic standards that would help them and meet the demands of college, work and military service. Currently, states vary wildly in what they consider sufficient progress under the law.

Mr. Kennedy has also suggested expanding social programs for low-income children and putting outreach workers in every impoverished school, as a way of raising achievement. He is also proposing a new federal role in school construction and renovation.

There is also a question as to whether a "one size fits all" approach like NCLB is meeting the regional needs of states like South Carolina and other Southern states.

How these questions and issues interrelate is illustrated in Education Week's 2007 Quality Counts study. The report, subtitled "From Cradle to Career: Connecting American Education from Birth to Adulthood", includes a "Chance for Success Index":

The Chance-for-Success Index, developed by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center for the report, provides a state-focused perspective on the importance of education throughout a person's lifetime.

The index is based on 13 indicators that highlight whether young children get off to a good start, succeed in elementary and secondary school, and hit key educational and economic benchmarks as adults. Those indicators, grouped by stage of life, are:

The early years. Percent of children in families with annual incomes at least 200 percent above the federal poverty line; percent of children with at least one parent with a postsecondary degree; percent of children with at least one parent working full time and year-round; percent of children whose parents are fluent English-speakers; percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool; percent of eligible children enrolled in kindergarten programs.

The school-age years. Percent of 4th grade public school students who read at the "proficient" level or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; percent of 8th grade public school students who perform at the proficient level or higher in mathematics; percent of public high school students who graduate with a diploma in four years.

The adult years. Percent of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education or with a degree; percent of 25- to 64-year-olds with a postsecondary degree; percent of adults with incomes at or above the national median; percent of adults with steady employment (full time and full year).

Among the report's findings:

Virginia, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire rank at the top of the index, while New Mexico, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama lag significantly behind the national average.

If, as economists argue, human capital is a critical driver of economic development, some states are clearly far better positioned than others. And so are their citizens.

On their website, Education Week provides state-by-state highlight reports and an interactive map which graphically illustrates how states compare overall and in each category. Overall Southern state rankings according to the map are:

Virginia: 1st
Florida: 31st
North Carolina: 35th
Georgia: 38th
Arkansas: 39th
Kentucky: 41st
South Carolina: 41st
West Virginia: 43rd
Tennessee: 45th
Mississippi: 45th
Alabama: 45th
Texas: 48th
Louisiana: 49th

Except perhaps for Virginia, there is clearly much work to be done in the South. But it isn't all done in the classroom or with national programs such as NCLB. From Education Week's commentary "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty":

As Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkham write in their 2002 book Inequality at the Starting Gate, "We should expect schools to increase achievement for all students, regardless of race, income, class, and prior achievement." But, they add, it is unreasonable to expect schools to completely eliminate any large pre-existing inequalities, especially if the schools themselves are "underfunded and overchallenged."

And where children live in the United States further affects the challenges they're likely to face. Compared with a youngster in Massachusetts, for example, an infant born in Mississippi is 49 percent more likely to have a low birth weight, slightly over twice as likely to live in a poor household, and 56 percent more likely to live in a family where neither parent has a postsecondary degree. He or she is also less likely to have health insurance or working parents.

As the statistics on the following pages make clear, education does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, broader social policies may be needed to address issues of changing demographics, health care, concentrated poverty, and an economy increasingly stratified by wealth.

"Equal opportunity," Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, argues, "requires a full menu of social, economic, and educational reforms: in employment policy, health care, housing, and civil rights enforcement, as well as in schools."