NOW THAT the state Supreme Court has rejected the Legislature’s request to rehear the 21-year-old Abbeville County School District v. State education-adequacy case, there’s no longer any excuse: Legislators and school officials must get to work on providing all children in this state with the education they need to get good jobs and support their families and pay taxes and in other ways help make our state a better place for us all.
Although it made no sense to spend even more tax dollars on that quixotic appeal, it was encouraging to see House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman putting together study committees to design responses to the order even before the court turned down their appeal. Rep. Lucas’ decision to include representatives of the districts that filed the lawsuit, as well as other non-legislators with a stake in raising the level of education for all children in this state, was particularly encouraging — and surprising in a state where we have for too long allowed our legislators to believe that they, and perhaps the special interests who underwrite their campaigns, have all the answers.
There is no question that the Legislature needs to be thoughtful, and not just grab on to an easy “solution” because it sounds nice. There’s no silver bullet to providing a better education to children who live in desperate poverty, who don’t know their alphabet or how to count or even how to behave around other children when they first show up at school. No silver bullet to helping those children want to learn. No silver bullet to helping them retain the progress they’ve made when they go home every night and every weekend and over the summer to homes without books, to parents who can barely read themselves, or who have to work three jobs to keep food on the table or simply don’t care about their children’s education.
Nor should legislators automatically adopt whatever the districts ask for; as the court made clear, the districts have declined to make some changes on their own that could have improved the situation.
And here’s something that’s every bit as important: They mustn’t use the need for study as an excuse to run the clock.
At best, a delay game would rob even more children of the opportunity to get the education we need them to have. Our state already has stolen that from 21 years worth of first-graders — many more actually, if you count all the ones who were insufficiently educated before the lawsuit was ever filed.
At worst, stalling could allow lawmakers to create themselves a Supreme Court that disagrees with the decision and will sign off on just about anything they do, whether it solves the problem or not.
I wish the court-packing scenario were in the realm of conspiracy-theory crazy, but the fact is that only three of the five justices agreed that the state had a constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to all children. The fact is that one of the three, Chief Justice Jean Toal, by law must retire at the end of this year, and another of the three, Associate Justice Don Beatty, is said to be on the short list for a federal judgeship. The fact is that it is the Legislature that will elect a replacement or replacements, and we need look no further than last week’s ham-handed attempt by a freshman House member to impose an ideological litmus test on would-be judges to see how little some legislators appreciate judicial independence.
So very early on, in addition to reminding lawmakers how short-sighted and Washingtonian it is to select judges based on their position on one or two emotional issues, we need to remind our legislators and our would-be justices that it is unethical and should be reason for disqualification for a judicial candidate even to give out signals as to how he or she would handle a case that remains before the court, as this one does and couldfor years.
As our editorial board has noted, one good-faith action that legislators could take this year — which wouldn’t cost a penny and does not require any special knowledge about how best to educate children — is to start consolidating school districts. There are countless other governmental reforms that would improve the quality of schools and school districts without making insufficiently considered changes to curriculum; members of Sen. Leatherman’s committee have been studying many of those reforms for years. And helping poor districts attract and keep good teachers will have to be part of the eventual solution, so Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposals along those lines merit serious consideration.
The point is that the Legislature does not need to wait until next year to respond to the court’s order to do what it should have been doing for decades without a court order.
Nor do we need to wait nearly a year to get reports from the study committees. Rather than giving them until the start of the 2016 session — which means it could be a month into the session before bills are introduced, and a month more before they make it through the committee process — why not have those studies due in, say, November? That would give everyone a chance to look through them and think through them and put together legislation that could start through the regular committee process even before the session opens.
It will take years, perhaps decades, for us to “fix” our problem, if that can ever be done. Spending a year to put together a thorough and thoughtful plan of action is acceptable. More than that is not.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.