Teacher quality, school district sizes, school bus numbers and the percentage of a district’s budget that goes to administrators’ salaries.
Those were some of the specific topics – as well as whether the court should set its own standards for the state’s public education system – that were zeroed in on by the S.C. Supreme Court’s five justices Tuesday.
“The question before the court is not how much money the children get,” Carl Epps, the lawyer representing the school districts, told the justices.
Chief Justice Jean Toal asked, “What is the question?”
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“The question before the court is,” said Epps, “whether the children are being provided with an opportunity irrespective of the money they are getting.”
That exchange was just one of many between justices and lawyers in nearly two hours of legal arguments heard by Toal and the other justices. The arguments were the latest chapter in a 20-year lawsuit brought by some of the state’s poorest school districts.
Bobby Stepp, a lawyer for the Legislature, which is fighting the districts’ lawsuit, told the justices there’s no reason for them to interfere with the public education, especially since the Constitution already requires a “minimally adequate education” – a standard he said is being met.
“Judges are not experts in education; the court systems are not policymakers; courts don’t sit as super school boards,” Stepp argued.
In any event, Stepp said, the most recent evidence in the case is 10 years old, and the Supreme Court shouldn’t step in at this stage in a matter where the record is outdated and “frozen in time.”
A decision favoring the school districts – represented by the Nelson Mullins law firm, which has handled the case for years free of charge – could require the Legislature to take action on state school policies and possibly spend more money on public education.
To Epps, the decision is easy: Too many basic standards in specific areas are going begging in the state’s poorer districts, and the Legislature needs to act.
Many children spend hours on school buses because small districts don’t have enough buses, Epps said. Many teachers in poor districts are unqualified, with degrees from substandard teacher colleges, he said.
The most vital element in educating a child is a good, qualified teacher, Epps said, and that is all too often not the case in the poorer districts. And that does take money, Epps said.
Epps’ colleague, lawyer Steve Morrison, argued, “The state has systematically segregated our poorest African-American children into rural ghettos. And having them herded them into those ghettos, the state has systematcially refused to provide funding that would produce a constitutionally adequate education in those districts.”
Reciting a litany of alleged ills, Morrison kept repeating the word “systematically” to press home to the justices his point that only a sweeping judicial ruling can remedy the state’s wholesale failures in public education in poorer counties.
Morrison told the justices that its decision, “properly articulated, could trigger a new dawn, a new renaissance in South Carolina.”
During the oral arguments, both judges and lawyers seemed to agree on one thing – that in poorer counties, public education is often far below where it should be. Districts statewide get a per-pupil annual allotment. Wealthier districts – those with more jobs and more-expensive homes – can supplement the state’s funds with more property tax money than the poorer districts.
Epps and Morrison told the justices that earlier this year, Washington state’s supreme court found that state’s educational system didn’t meet standards. That decision offers a model for what South Carolina’s high court should do, they said.
Associate Justice John Kittredge said if the S.C. Supreme Court finds for the school districts, its opinion needs to be specific. “Otherwise, we are writing an advisory opinion.”
Toal told Epps that in small school districts, the bulk of financial resources is aimed at administration and not students. “Isn’t that something we have to look at?”
Epps conceded that his districts were small, but said it was the Legislature that allowed such small districts – and their ills – to persist.
“The state should fix that,” he told Toal.
Associate Justice Costa Pleicones said “there are things that can be done to alleviate the abysmal conditions,” but they should be left to the popularly elected General Assembly and not the court.
Associate Justice Donald Beatty scoffed at Pleicones’ assertion. Referring to numerous court-ordered civil rights gains, Beatty said, “To accept that, you’d have to say the court’s intervention in segregation was wrong.”
One spectator at Tuesday’s overflow audience in the Supreme Court chambers was Ray Rogers, Dillon School District 4 superintendent.
“I think the justices are in a quandary as to what to do and how to do it – but they all agree something is wrong,” said Rogers, one of the original plaintiffs in the state lawsuit in 1993.
In 20 years, Rogers said, his county has consolidated two school districts to make up his current district and approved a tax increase to finance a new middle school, replacing a 100-year-old buildings.
But the needs, especially for more and better teachers, remain desperate, Rogers said.
Another person in the audience was Derek Black, University of South Carolina professor of educational and constitutional law.
“The thing that kept striking me over and over again was the awesome responsibility being laid at the Supreme Court’s feet,” Black said.
All five justices seemed aware of the deficiencies in public education aired Tuesday, but some justices seemed so concerned about encroaching on the Legislature they might lean toward “staying out of it altogether,” Black said. Other justices seemed ready to act, he said.
State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said, “In recent years, we’ve made significant improvements in public education.” Test scores have risen and different school choice options have been created, he said.
“I would hope they would allow the General Assembly along with the governor to resolve any problems legislatively,” said Courson, the Senate’s president pro tem and Senate Education Committee chairman.
The arguments continue a case that began in 1993, when attorneys representing 29 school districts filed suit against the state in Lee County, contending that the state’s education funding formula was unfair because it didn’t give enough to poor, rural school districts to pay employee benefit costs.