This article originally appeared in The Greenville News on Thursday, June 11, 2015.

How many times have we heard statements about “workforce readiness” from South Carolina politicians, business leaders and education administrators. After all, a strong workforce is a key reason why our state’s economic development efforts have been so successful.

This success has been hard fought, and to keep South Carolina’s economy moving in the right direction a key question remains: are we doing enough?

Initiatives to pair technical colleges with large companies to train workers are highly successful. Career training in high school can set a student on the path to success. But what about the thousands of students who aren’t even close to grade level when they enter high school? What about the children who were stuck in low-performing schools for most of their lives? We have to do more to address K-12 education comprehensively, not just when students are a few years away college or a career.

New, high-tech jobs are coming to our state every day and the demands on our workforce are obvious. It’s no surprise that in April, the executive director of the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce, Cheryl Stanton, said, “Last month we had over 66,000 open jobs in this state … We have 148,000 unemployed. That suggests we have a problem.”

Indeed we do.

I believe, and the evidence suggests, that an overwhelming cause of this problem is inattention to South Carolina’s lowest performing schools — the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide that are chronically failing our kids. In communities where a high quality education is supposed to be the ticket out of poverty these low performing schools are keeping future generations trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.

The data on graduation rates proves the point further. The latest Building a Grad Nation study details where South Carolina stands compared with other states on graduation rates. While we have close to an 80 percent graduation rate overall, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

In 2013, the graduation rate for low income students was an abysmal 70.5 percent. For non-low income students in the same year, the graduation rate was almost 15 points higher at 84.5 percent. This disparity shows what most South Carolinians already knew: the achievement gap is a persistent problem.

So where does this leave us? In the opinion of many, with a tremendous opportunity. If we can dramatically improve education, particularly for students at schools in the bottom 5 percent, we have a chance to change the future for thousands of children and open the door to great careers and a better life.

Despite what some might say, this type of turnaround is possible. Other Southern states that faced similar challenges to South Carolina have been successful in showing impressive student growth gains, dramatically improving graduation rates and even increasing the college-going rate. This turnaround model has proven highly effective in Louisiana and Tennessee, called the Recovery and Achievement School Districts, respectively.

This concept could work in South Carolina as a way to address our growing workforce needs. Great companies like Volvo, BMW, Michelin, GE, Boeing, Bridgestone and Continental chose our state because of the conditions that exist here. Those same businesses, like all of us, want the best possible schools to ensure they have the most qualified employees.

High quality education is an economic issue, and it is a necessity for future job recruitment.

South Carolina is a leader in economic development. Let’s be the same in public education.

Bradford is SouthCarolinaCAN’s Executive Director. He lives in Greenville with his wife, Ashley, and their two young children, William and Charlotte. He’s bad at spelling, which is why he loves Mark Twain’s quote, “Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.”


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