The Legislature asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to revoke its deadlines for developing a plan to overhaul South Carolina’s public education system.
House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman jointly filed a petition asking the high court to reject its own order. They argue the justices’ Feb. 1 deadline for issuing a plan is arbitrary and impossible to meet. They also contend the order, which requires the creation of a three-person expert panel to oversee the process, unconstitutionally usurps the authority of lawmakers.
The deadline for that panel’s creation passed unmet last Thursday. Under the order, the panel is supposed to review the Legislature’s plan, as well as the districts’ response, and submit a report to the high court by March 15. Legislators and the governor get to put one person on the panel, while school districts that sued the state in 1993 appoint one. The third is to be state Superintendent Molly Spearman.
The petition calls that unworkable, partly because there’s no way for both legislative chambers and the governor to agree on one representative.
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“Arbitrary deadlines that seek to hijack the legislative process and meaningless approval from an unrealistic super-panel will not reform South Carolina’s education delivery system,” Lucas said in a statement. “The court’s attempt to overstep its judicial authority further complicates the lawmaking process.”
Last month’s order follows the court’s ruling last fall that the state’s antiquated, piecemeal education funding system fails to provide students in poor, rural districts the opportunity to succeed. Siding with districts, the justices told legislators and school officials to collectively fix the problem but gave no clear instructions or timeline.
Attorneys for the districts asked for more direction, fearing a solution could be many more years away without one.
But the legislative leaders argue the court’s timelines present “practical impossibilities.” Such complicated legislation can’t be passed through the House and Senate by Feb. 1, just three weeks into the legislative session. Any bill drafted by that date in either chamber “likely would not look anything like” the final version as it’s amended through the legislative process. And the court can’t bar lawmakers from debating and amending legislation, the petition reads.
The districts’ attorney, Carl Epps, said he plans to respond this week by suggesting new timelines he believes should address lawmakers’ concerns.
The goal, for students’ sake, is to get legislation passed by the end of the 2016 session, Epps said.
“I think we can manage that need” without interim deadlines, if the court agrees, he said.
The two legislative leaders have already made clear in a letter hand-delivered Sept. 29 to Chief Justice Jean Toal that they plan to ignore last month’s order and continue on their own path. Both Lucas and Leatherman appointed study committees earlier this year to come up with reform recommendations.
“There can be no doubt that the issues relating to the needs of the students in the plaintiff districts are serious and must be addressed,” Leatherman said in a statement. “Putting aside the distraction of a battle of wills between the General Assembly and the Supreme Court will allow us to tackle this monumental task.”