Gov. Nikki Haley and state lawmakers are fighting a court order aimed at improving the state’s school system in rural, poor districts.
In two petitions filed with the S.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday, attorneys representing Haley and lawmakers asked the justices to rehear a landmark school equity lawsuit that rural school districts, including Abbeville, brought against the state more than 20 years ago.
“They (rehearings) are not routinely granted, but who knows in this case?” said attorney Bobby Stepp, who is representing the General Assembly in asking for a rehearing.
The court ruled 3-2 in November that the state failed to provide children in poor, rural districts with an adequate public education as required by the S.C. Constitution.
Without recommending specific policies or actions, the court ordered lawmakers and the school districts to devise a plan to address the problems the court identified, including weak rural tax bases, aging facilities and the difficulty of recruiting quality teachers to rural areas. The court also said the state’s method of paying for schools was unfair and needs to be updated, and hinted some small school districts may need to be merged.
However, Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson’s petition for a rehearing says the Supreme Court’s majority “overlooked recent education initiatives put in place by (Haley’s administration) and the General Assembly that will directly affect rural school districts in South Carolina.”
Attached to the petition is a copy of Haley’s education reform proposals adopted by the General Assembly earlier this year as part of $180 million in new education spending.
The petition for a new hearing adds “improving education performance for all students, particularly students in rural school districts, is an ongoing, critically important goal” for Haley and legislators.
University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black said it is unlikely the justices would grant a rehearing. However, they could if they are presented with relevant evidence that was not available to them when they heard the case.
But, Black added, “As I read the opinion, the education issues were so systematic and so woeful” that it would take much more that one year of reforms to make a difference.
Haley’s petition also says the justices usurped the exclusive authority of the governor and Legislature to make policy and budget decisions for the state’s schools when the court ordered lawmakers to act.
Two justices dissented in the November ruling, arguing the court does not have the authority to make policy decisions.
Haley’s appeal also says the Supreme Court misinterpreted the law, contending the state has provided the school system required by the state Constitution.
In 1999, the Supreme Court interpreted the state Constitution as requiring that students must have the opportunity to receive a “minimally adequate” education, including:
• The ability to read, write, and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science
• A fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and of history and governmental processes
• Academic and vocational skills
The General Assembly, in its petition, says the high court’s order in the case is “vague and practically unworkable,” placing far more responsibility for student achievement on legislators than previous court rulings.
Since its 1999 ruling, lawmakers argue, the court has transformed the Legislature’s obligation to provide a free public school system “into a duty to design and fund a school system that guarantees unspecified levels of student achievement.”