September 16, 2012

20 years later, debate rages on over ‘minimally adequate’ education

Twenty years after poor, rural school districts ignited the debate over South Carolina public education financing, lawyers representing eight districts will go before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to argue that it is now up to the high court to find a way to remedy what the Legislature will not.

Twenty years after poor, rural school districts ignited the debate over South Carolina public education financing, lawyers representing eight districts will go before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to argue that it is now up to the high court to find a way to remedy what the Legislature will not.

The Supreme Court justices last heard oral arguments in the case in June 2008. This spring, the court – with two justices new to the case – ordered a rehearing to determine whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to deliver a minimally adequate education to all students. The court has told lawyers they should be prepared to discuss the impact of any education financing actions since 2008.

The case has been making its way through the state’s legal system since it was filed in 1993 by 40 school districts, about half of the state’s districts. In 2005, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper ruled that the state met its obligation to deliver a minimally adequate education, except in the area of early childhood education, where he ruled for the plaintiffs.

The districts appealed, and the state cross-appealed.

Some, like Dillon 4 superintendent D. Ray Rogers, wonder whether the public, once caught up in the legal battle over children living in what became known as the “corridor of shame” along I-95, even realizes the case remains undecided.

So Rogers says he feels “like Custer,” one of the last standing among the group of rural administrators who first turned to the courts 20 years ago to try to force a change in the way schools are funded.

A younger, more idealistic Rogers figured it would be short work to convince the then-Democratic Legislature of the validity of their concerns and their glaring needs.

“I was one of the original 40 (plaintiffs), and we felt that something had to change, that someone had to wake up and see the plight of the kids in these rural areas,” he said Tuesday.

“I was thinking we would get it by the end of the (1993) school year,” said Rogers, who has seen a generation of students pass through his school since the start of the case. “I learned one thing – the government and the law move as they see fit, not on any of our timetables.”

Lawyers for the state are adamant in seeking dismissal of the latest appeal, countering that, after funding early childhood programs in high-poverty districts, the General Assembly has met the financial and educational obligations established by the state Constitution and the court.

“The distinction between our aspirations and our obligations lies at the heart of this case,” Robert E. “Bobby” Stepp, the state’s chief lawyer, argued in briefs filed in advance of Tuesday’s hearing.

The state points out that with one exception, each of the districts spends more than the average state per-pupil expenditure. Districts can spend more than the state gives them by raising local property taxes. But poorer districts often have only low-value homes and little industry to tax.

Carl B. Epps III, lead lawyer for the districts, said the General Assembly “has played around the edges,” consigning a generation of poor children to mediocre schools and refusing to take responsibility to reform the system “and keep pace with modern requirements.”

“The issues haven’t changed. The facts haven’t changed,” Epps said Wednesday. “The challenges these districts face are as severe, if not more severe, than when we tried the case in 2003-2004.”

Lawyers for the state argue in legal papers that attorneys for the districts “have consistently attempted to confuse the issue by substituting achievement for opportunity and they have consistently ignored the definition of what constitutes a minimally adequate education.” They argue that other factors, including generational poverty, have a lot to do with the low performance of students.

Rogers and other school administrators are aware that recession pressures and a Republican-controlled Legislature suggest any sort of dramatic financial change in current formulas will be elusive.

Schools statewide, which suffered deep cuts in state and local funding over the past several years, are only now stabilizing.

“Most of those politicians that have the wherewithal to make this happen, or even bring it to the table for discussion, I don’t know that philosophically they care to do that anymore,” said John Kirby, superintendent of Dillon 3 in Latta. “The fervor is not there because economic times are such that we ought to be thankful for what we have now.”

Kirby signed on back in the late 1980s to seek state relief in providing fringe benefits to bus drivers, an effort that quickly expanded into the equity lawsuit.

“Back then it was a $32 million fix,” Kirby said. “They could have given us $8 million and we would have said, ‘fine.’”

In the intervening two decades, thousands of pages of legal arguments have been filed and millions in lawyer fees spent. Lawyers for both sides have grayed but not mellowed.

The focus now is now on Allendale, Dillon 4 (previously Dillon 2), Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3.

Even President Obama has played a bit part in the drama over a Dillon County school, after a student wrote him of the plight of J.V. Martin Junior High, an aged, decrepit structure that he had visited during his 2008 campaign. Last month, Dillon 4 held a dedication for a new Dillon Middle School to replace J.V. Martin, a project made possible by an infusion of money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a $4 million grant and a $37 million loan.

And those three words, “minimally adequate education?”

Outside the courtroom, those words have spawned an ongoing and sometimes vitriolic conversation about the state of public education in South Carolina.

Rogers still believes in the case, saying that “a child should not be held liable because they were born in the wrong county or the less industrious area.”

But whether the court will embrace that aspirational argument, over the state’s assertion that the General Assembly is meeting its constitutional obligations, is anybody’s guess.

“I don’t know the answer,” Rogers said. “I sure don’t want to take the money from another school district. I feel like there has to be some kind of vehicle to help these districts or we are going to pay for it all the way through these students’ lives.”

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