State lawmakers have done little to ensure that children in poor, rural communities get as good an education as their wealthier counterparts, according to school districts that sued the state nearly a quarter-century ago.
In 2014, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled the state was violating its Constitution by failing to educate students in rural, high-poverty areas. A year later, the court ordered lawmakers and the districts that sued the state to work together on solving the problem.
Friday marked the annual deadline for the districts, governor and legislators to update the court on their progress toward improving the state’s public schools.
The answer, the poor schools said: Not enough.
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Legislators disagreed, again asking the court to dismiss the case.
House leaders say they have done what the court asked them to do, forming a committee and developing dozens of proposals. Some made it into legislation, but few passed.
Senate leaders also said they have made progress, spending more money on technology, building repairs and school buses.
But those steps do not go far enough, the districts argued in a report to the court filed Friday.
The state has known since 2014 it has “been operating an unconstitutional public education system,” said Laura Hart of Columbia, an attorney representing the more than 30 rural school districts that sued the state.
“And yet they are continuing to act basically as they’ve always acted: piecemeal, fragmented and without a unified vision” for correcting the violations, Hart said.
The school districts argue:
▪ Lawmakers have failed to fix how the state pays for public schools, a system the court said was unfair.
▪ A bill that would pave the way for the state to spend money to help renovate and rebuild schools has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. But other education laws recently enacted do little to create wholesale change in the quality of education.
“Many of the policy reforms are essentially currently available policies, repackages or tweaked,” the districts told the court.
One new law, touted widely by lawmakers, raises the bar for what a high school graduate should know and be able to do to succeed in college or in a high-skilled manufacturing or tech job.
However, the school districts say the requirements only “amplify” standards in existing law.
S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, R-Saluda, told The State newspaper last year that the state is “breaking the law” until it sends more resources to districts to help students achieve the higher standards.
▪ Legislators tout money they committed this year to replace aging school buses – some prone to catching on fire.
The districts point out the money falls far below the amount Spearman requested to replace the unsafe buses.
▪ The $55 million lawmakers set aside to help high-poverty school districts with building repairs and maintenance is welcome, the school districts said.
But it pales in comparison to the building needs across the state, they added.
Hart said lawmakers were asked to come up with a comprehensive plan for tackling problems with the state’s education system, but that has not happened.
“It’s been a long time coming, and they still haven’t done anything substantive about it,” Hart said.
Fixing SC schools
More than 30 poor, rural school districts sued the state for more support in 1993. Almost a quarter century later, the case still is in court. A look at what lawmakers have done recently for public schools:
▪ Money for buildings: S.C. lawmakers approved spending $55 million to help districts pay for building repairs and maintenance. A more ambitious proposal that would allow the state to borrow money to help districts with larger projects – renovating or building new schools – passed the House and is pending in the Senate.
▪ Tech money: Lawmakers have sent about $30 million a year to districts for new technology since 2014. But, this year, lawmakers cut that money to $12 million.
▪ School buses: Lawmakers approved $29 million for school buses, far less than the $72 million the state’s schools chief said is needed to retire older, unsafe buses. S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster then vetoed the school bus money that legislators approved.
▪ Spending per student: Lawmakers touted increases in state money that school districts get based on their enrollment, mostly to pay teacher salaries. But the amount schools are getting still trails the amount specified by state law by about $500 a student.
▪ Studies continue: The chairman of the House’s budget-writing committee recently announced a panel tasked with simplifying the state’s “overcomplicated and outdated” way of paying for public schools. The state Senate also has formed a committee that will review proposals to fix public schools.