Politics & Government

SC Supreme Court finds for poor districts in 20-year-old school equity suit

In a legal decision that could redefine South Carolina’s public education system, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state has failed in its duty to provide what it says is a “minimally adequate” education to children in the state’s poorest school districts.

The 3-2 ruling in Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina reverberated across the political landscape and promised to provoke renewed legislative arguments over the state’s controversial education funding formulas and the financial plight of poor, rural districts, whose superintendents joined together years ago to seek more equitable funding.

The ruling comes after 21 years of contentious courtroom battles and legislative debate over the state’s responsibility to educate those who live in what became known, thanks to a documentary, as South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.”

“It’s been a hard pull and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Dillon 4 superintendent D. Ray Rogers, one of the last working superintendents in an original group of 40 school chiefs who raised the equity issue in the 1980s and 1990s. “ A kid that is born in Dillon, South Carolina – he or she shouldn’t have less of an education than someone born in a more affluent district.

“How many kids have already gone by who were not taken care of and helped and put in decent facilities because of the Legislature not moving to do what’s right?” said Rogers, whose district included an 1896 school, J.V. Martin Middle, that was finally replaced in 2012. “It didn’t take a Philadelphia lawyer to figure it out, you just had to take a ride and see that it wasn’t right.”

The fact that a generation of school children has passed through the schoolhouse doors since 1993 — when 39 school districts filed an initial lawsuit in Lee County seeking equity in education funding — was not lost on the high court.

“Thousands of South Carolina’s schoolchildren – the quintessential future of our state – have been denied this opportunity, due to no more than historical accident,” said Chief Justice Jean Toal, writing for the majority, which included justices Donald Beatty and Kaye Hearn.

While the poor, rural districts bear some responsibility for their chronically low academic performance, the court stated: “Nevertheless, it is the Defendants who must take the principal initiative, as they bear the burden articulated by our state’s Constitution, and have failed in their constitutional duty to ensure that students in the Plaintiff Districts receive the requisite educational opportunity.”

Some lawmakers cheered the resolution of the lawsuit, while others were more circumspect as they conferred on its consequences.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who chairs a K-12 education panel, said: “Everyone involved — the plaintiff districts, the state, the Legislature and certainly the parents and students out there — everyone would like for us to put this lawsuit behind us and move forward in the area of education.”

In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley noted she was a product of rural schools and understood the challenges rural districts face. She said she remained committed to public education.

The current system of education funding is a “fractured formula,” Toal wrote, and must be remedied, a requirement which now moves the issue into the legislative arena. Legislators and school district officials have a “new opportunity” to lay aside blame, but the court also ordered both to come before the court with its proposed remedies to “address the constitutional violation announced today.”

But in his dissent, Justice John Kittredge said the court was moving far beyond its judicial territory.

“Today, the Court elevates personal policy preferences to constitutional status and justifies its transgression simply by invoking the virtues of educational advancement,” Kittredge wrote. “I view the Court’s decision as a policy opinion on the state of public education in South Carolina, in direct contravention of what this Court said it would not do in Abbeville I — act as a ‘super-legislature.’”

“As much as I wish the General Assembly could eradicate poverty through legislation, it cannot. Today’s result creates out of whole cloth an incalculable constitutional standard and makes the General Assembly answerable to this Court for what is clearly a policy matter constitutionally committed exclusively to the Legislative Branch. As noble as the Court’s intentions may be, as judges, we are sworn to follow the law, not our hearts.” Justice Costa Pleicones concurred in the dissent.

Derek Black, an education law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision to retain jurisdiction is significant.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re not playing games,’ so to speak, ‘and we want a fix in short order,’” Black said. “That is a big step forward.”

For those who had met the schoolchildren and toured the aging school buildings in school districts like Dillon, Marion and Jasper counties, the ruling represented as sweeping a judicial verdict as that made in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools. A South Carolina case, Briggs v. Elliott, figured prominently in that judicial decision. Toal noted both cases.

Carl B. Epps III, who along with Laura Hart and their late colleague Steve Morrison, argued eloquently on behalf of the state’s poorest children since the lawsuit’s inception, was jubilant.

“Our state has historically approached education with stops and starts,” Epps said. “It has never developed a program and stayed the course.”

He said the plan for equity should look at education through the child’s eyes.

Robert E. “Bobby” Stepp, the state’s lawyer, had long argued the case was about a distinction between “aspirations and obligations.” He said he was disappointed in the decision and a little puzzled at the court’s decision to retain jurisdiction over the case.

“That’s sort of an unusual procedure, but that’s what the court has directed,” Stepp said. “I’m obviously disappointed that they found a constitutional violation, but that’s all I would say at this point.”

The case began when three dozen rural districts joined together to sue the state, claiming their modest property tax bases were incapable of generating the kind of local revenue wealthier school districts collect. The suing districts insisted a 1977 funding formula used by the Legislature ignores economic woes unique to rural communities.

The case wound in and out of the courts as the state attempted on several occasions to get the lawsuit dismissed.

In 1999, the high court returned the case to the circuit court for arguments and reduced the number of plaintiff districts to eight — Allendale, Dillon 4 (previously Dillon 2), Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3.

Arguments began in July 2003 before Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper at the Clarendon County Courthouse and lasted 101 days.

On Dec. 30, 2005, Cooper ruled that the state met its obligation to deliver a minimally adequate education, except in the area of early childhood education, where he ruled for the plaintiffs. The districts appealed, and the state cross-appealed.

The high court last heard arguments in September 2012.

“The court has ruled, but I still wonder what the General Assembly’s going to do. They still have discretion,” said Tom Truitt, the former Florence District 1 superintendent, 74 now and long retired.

Truitt attended trial for 76 of its 101 days, taking notes about the day’s testimony and emailing updates to those unable to be in court.

“I hope that now that the legal battle is over – I hope it’s over – that people will come together and say, ‘Let’s fix this; it’s in the best interests of the state; as a state, we need to do better for our children.’”

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