IT’S TIME ONCE again for communal hand-wringing over the fact that the state Supreme Court still hasn’t ruled in the 21-year-old lawsuit alleging that South Carolina has deprived children in the Corridor of Shame of the “minimally adequate” public education that our constitution requires.
This time the reminder comes from Al Jazeera America.
Yes, that Al Jazeera. Jihadi network news. Retooled for an American audience.
Whatever. I suppose it’s probably the only national network or publication that hadn’t already sent a crew down to South Carolina to chronicle the horrid conditions of the school buildings and the embarrassingly outdated textbooks and report the depressing test scores and recount the generational poverty that has become more pervasive as the jobs and the most promising residents have fled once-liveable communities in the impoverished swath of South Carolina that runs alongside Interstate 95, and stretches far beyond.
It’s a pretty straightforward telling of the story we know too well, but too often relegate to the recesses of our minds: How three dozen poor school districts filed suit in 1993 claiming that they are inadequately funded in violation of the state constitution and asking the court to take the extraordinary step of forcing lawmakers to give them more money.
How the Supreme Court agreed to bypass the lower courts and hear the case itself, but then changed its mind and sent it to a lower court in 1994.
How in two decades since, the lower court dismissed the suit, the Supreme Court dismissed the dismissal, the lower court held a months-long trial and issued a divided ruling, which both sides appealed and which the Supreme Court has heard twice now, most recently in September 2012.
And how we still await a ruling.
There are heart-rending pictures of children playing in an eroding roadway, of young men sitting idly on a bench in front of abandoned storefronts in Dillon, a gaudy image of South of the Border and, of course, the obligatory photograph of the 118-year-old J.V. Martin Junior High School. Never mind that all the students moved into a new building two years ago; it still houses the Dillon County District 4 offices. It still remains a powerful image.
“Justice Delayed: Race, poverty and geography converge in the longest trial in South Carolina’s history” doesn’t cover much new ground. It could have been written, with only minor changes, anytime in the past year, or decade, or two decades.
What it does, like all of these pieces, is remind us of the troubling questions about what our state must and should do to ensure that children who were born into communities too poor to recruit good teachers and pay for decent school buildings and textbooks get the same shot at a good education as the children born into middle-class communities.
Must vs. should
What our state must do always has been less interesting to me than what we should do. I don’t know whether the Legislature is fulfilling the mandate in the constitution to provide “a system of free public schools.” The Supreme Court said in 1999, to great derision, that this meant a “minimally adequate” education.
More importantly, and usually overlooked, the court defined that “minimally adequate” education as providing students with “adequate and safe facilities” where they have the opportunity to acquire “The ability to read, write and speak the English language, knowledge of mathematics and physical science,” a “fundamental knowledge of economics, social and political systems, and of history and governmental processes” and “Academic and vocational skills.”
Whether the Legislature is meeting its constitutional obligation or not, it certainly isn’t being smart. It isn’t helping our state achieve its potential. It isn’t investing in the future of all of us.
The lawsuit’s advocates cheered the publication of the latest retelling of their story. But there was some consternation this time, over the part that said the state was providing “a pre-emptive stopgap in the year ahead, having approved an education spending plan put forth by Gov. Nikki Haley that will add $180 million more to K-12 spending, aimed directly at poverty.”
Some people might think this appropriation solved the problem, they worried. We need to remind people that the Legislature has underfunded public education by as much as $1 billion since it stopped providing even the inadequate amount that state law requires, they said.
And it’s true that this year’s appropriation is a mere first step, as the governor acknowledges. And it’s true that when the recession imploded our budget in the last decade, the Legislature slashed education funding. And that it still hasn’t caught back up.
But I’m not sure that it’s either realistic or reasonable to expect the Legislature to make up the money that wasn’t spent in the past decade. Or decades.
The fact is that we’re not going to fix years and decades and generations and centuries of neglect. The fact is that we have lost children. We have lost generations of children. And we’re not going to get them back.
What we can do, what we must do, is to stop losing more children.
The cost to each of us
Even if we don’t care at all about the human toll, we ought to care about the toll those losses take on our state. On each and every one of us.
Are you frightened about crime? Then you want the Legislature to provide a good education to all children in this state. It’s true that very educated and even very wealthy people commit crimes, but they do it in smaller numbers, and they don’t tend to do it with guns. At least not against strangers. They might render your portfolio worthless, but they’re not going to break into your home in the middle of the night and steal the silver and rape your daughter and kill you. The vast majority of poor people don’t do that either. But the people who do are desperately poor, and poorly educated. And that’s what you’re worried about.
Think your taxes are too high? Then you want the Legislature to provide a good education to all children in this state. Yes, it might cost you more today — although it might not, depending on precisely how it is done, and how other things are done. But in the long run it will cost less, because we can educate children for a lot less money than we can incarcerate them. And once we educate them, they can get decent jobs and start paying taxes, rather than demanding public support.
Worried that there aren’t enough good jobs to keep bright young people in South Carolina? Well, one reason is that there aren’t enough bright young people in South Carolina. Make more of those, and you’ll see more good jobs. It’s sort of like the industry-cluster idea — that if you bring in BMW, you’ll get all sorts of other auto-related businesses. As we’ve seen.
We’ve been waiting for 21 years now for our Supreme Court to tell us whether the Legislature has to provide a good education to all children in this state. And frankly, it’s ridiculous that the court has dragged its decision out this long.
But we have never needed the Supreme Court to tell us that the Legislature needs to provide a good education to all children in this state; we know that. And our Legislature shouldn’t have to be ordered to do that. It should do its job, for the good of us all.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.