MUCH REMAINS unclear after the state Supreme Court’s rehearing of a 19-year-old lawsuit alleging that the Legislature has deprived children in the poorest school districts of the educational opportunities our constitution guarantees them. But two things are painfully clear:
Whether it is violating the constitution or not, the General Assembly has failed these children — and our state.
And so has the court.
The hard economic reality is that every child who drops out of school, every child who barely squeezes through school, is a drain on our economy. That’s a child who will barely be able to support himself, if that, likely will end up receiving government assistance, and might well turn to a life of crime.
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Our state won’t attract more and better-paying jobs, won’t be a safe and attractive place for the rest of us to live, certainly won’t be able to stop spending so much on prisons and police and Medicaid and social services as long as huge numbers of children continue to fail. Our state won’t prosper until the poorest children prosper, and the poorest children won’t prosper until they get a good education.
It is first and foremost the job of parents to educate their children. But too many times parents fail, because they either can’t or won’t do their jobs. That’s when the state must do more — or else we all suffer the consequences.
The poorest children won’t prosper until they have the best teachers — instead of the worst. Until they have talented principals who can inspire teachers and students alike, and who have the authority to put their ideas into action. Until they have safe and modern classrooms and textbooks and the sorts of other facilities and tools that students in Irmo and Greenville and Charleston take for granted.
That probably means spending more on the poorest schools, so they can entice good teachers to live and work in places where most professionals, frankly, do not want to go. It certainly means abandoning the local-control model when the locals either can’t or won’t make the hard decisions and do the hard work to educate children whose deprivation makes them much more difficult to educate than middle-class, suburban kids.
But while the Legislature has taken some tentative steps toward correcting these shortcomings, it has done far too little. Frankly, legislators have used this lawsuit as an excuse not to act. And the Supreme Court has facilitated this abdication.
Sixteen years ago, the trial judge threw this lawsuit out. The Supreme Court chose to revive it. We are not questioning that decision. But once the court accepted jurisdiction, it obliged itself to act. In a timely manner.
We can explain away many of the delays — it was a tremendously complicated case, which has traveled up and down and back up the court system — but there is simply no way to excuse the cumulative effect of delay and indecision.
It is an indictment of our political system that such a lawsuit was even brought. Our Legislature shouldn’t have to be told to provide the educational opportunities that are essential to our state’s prosperity. Yet here we are, 19 years later, another generation of children lost.
We don’t have a lot of confidence that our Legislature will do what needs to be done unless it’s ordered to do so. But we’re certain that it won’t act as long as it has the crutch of this lawsuit.
Whatever its decision, the court must make one. We cannot afford to lose yet another generation of children.