THE HAUNTING presence that will insinuate itself into every crevice of the legislative session that convenes today — and every session has one of these — is a state Supreme Court order that has generated more confusion, and misinformation, than any we’ve seen in years.
Both trace to the same root: The court’s decision in the 21-year-old Abbeville County School District v. State lawsuit didn’t do what most legislators either hoped or feared it would do.
That is, the court did not give the Legislature a number. Didn’t say, “You must increase spending by this much per child in poor school districts.” Didn’t give lawmakers that easy, if painful, answer that would allow them to pony up the extra cash and move on to the next item on their to-do list.
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For that matter, contrary to what critics insist, the court didn’t even tell the Legislature it had to spend more money on poor school districts.
That’s because the decision isn’t about equity. Isn’t about forcing the Legislature to spend the same amount of money on poor districts as we do on wealthy districts. (Indeed, the court made a point of noting that the state already spends more per pupil in the poorest districts.)
Nor is it simply about providing poor kids with teachers who are as good as the ones who teach wealthier kids, or providing poor kids with textbooks and technology that are as good as what’s provided to wealthier kids, although doing that would make a huge difference — and possibly even satisfy the court.
What the decision is about — what makes complying with it so much tougher than just cutting a giant check — is adequacy.
It’s about acknowledging that the poorest kids in the poorest districts begin school months or years behind their better-off peers, because their parents lacked either the time or the ability or the desire to teach them to read or count or identify their colors or shapes — or even to speak softly rather than yelling, to ask rather than announce, to raise their hands before they speak, to share, to respect authority.
It’s about seeing to it that these much-more-difficult-to-educate kids have teachers who are capable of educating them as well as wealthier, easier-to-educate kids are educated. It’s about seeing to it that those teachers have enough time with each student to get the job done. It’s about making sure poor kids have whatever extra resources they need — more intensive reading programs and muscular after-school programs come to mind — to get as good an education as better-off kids do. It’s about recognizing that even when we’re able to catch these kids up, they’re going to lose ground over the summer unless we keep working with them when school’s out.
And although the court spoke of the “opportunity to succeed” rather than “success,” I suspect the decision also is about finding a way to help poor kids want to succeed. About helping them take advantage of the opportunities that we provide them. And if the court isn’t looking for that, all of us ought to be looking for, and demanding, it.
Yes, that absolutely is the job of parents. And it’s easy to get all huffy and say that taxpayers shouldn’t have to do that. But that’s a terribly short-sighted position to take if we care one wit about what kind of state we live in and what kind of state we leave for our own children and grandchildren. You see, we can’t throw away these kids just because their parents didn’t do a good enough job, and if we don’t make up for parents’ failure, the children they fail will continue to drag down our whole state.
They’re going to end up in dead-end jobs, at best, and they’re going to raise another generation of children just like themselves, and we’re going to pay for their welfare benefits and medical benefits. And if they can’t get any jobs and instead turn to crime, we’re going to become their victims, and we’re going to pay for the extra police we need to protect ourselves from them, and the jails that become their homes.
Finally, and first and foremost, the decision is about making sure that all students in South Carolina have “adequate and safe facilities in which they have the opportunity to acquire:
“1) the ability to read, write and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science;
“2) a fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and
“3) academic and vocational skills.”
I can’t tell you precisely how to get there, or which of dozens of possible benchmarks I’d use to measure our progress, but that’s not because it’s confusing, or even necessarily expensive. It’s because we’ve spent 15 years talking derisively about an earlier court’s term for that endpoint — “a minimally adequate education” — rather than figuring out how to provide it. And as a result, 15 years after the court said we owe that to all children, the court has decided that we are not providing it. And we must.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.