The Buzz

SC Supreme Court sets February deadline in school-equity lawsuit

2007 "corridor of shame" bumper sticker superimposed on file photograph of the SC State House. State leaders have been given a deadline for coming up with a plan to improve SC public schools.
2007 "corridor of shame" bumper sticker superimposed on file photograph of the SC State House. State leaders have been given a deadline for coming up with a plan to improve SC public schools. FILE PHOTOS

S.C. lawmakers have until February to draft legislation to improve the state’s rural schools.

That deadline was issued Thursday by the S.C. Supreme Court, less than a year after the state’s highest court ruled South Carolina is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a quality education to children in low-income schools.

In a 3-2 order issued Thursday, the court gave Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, and the leaders of the GOP-controlled House and Senate a Feb. 1 deadline to develop a plan – including legislation – to improve those schools.

Last year, the court ordered the state and school districts to work together to come up with an improvement plan. However, Carl Epps, an attorney representing the school districts that sued the state in 1993, said the two sides needed a time-line from the court to help move along the process.

“If the (state’s) proposed remedies are inadequate to meet the children's needs, the court will intervene,” Epps said. “I'm always hopeful and optimistic that the General Assembly will do what it is required to do to uphold the Constitution.”

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, called the deadline in Thursday’s court order arbitrary, adding it suggested the court’s three-member majority had a “complete lack of understanding of the legislative process.”

“Clearly legislation is not passed by proposal. It's passed by actual bills that have to go through the House, through the Senate and go through the veto process,” said Lucas, an attorney. “Those are the rules that we have to play by.”

Last November, the court ruled 3-2 that the state had violated its constitutional duty to provide a “minimally adequate education” to all S.C. public-school students.

Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justices Don Beatty and Kaye Hearn formed the majority in that ruling, while Associate Justices Costa Pleicones and John Kittridge dissented.

That ruling was a long sought by 39 rural school districts that sued the state in 1993, alleging they did not have enough money to educate their students.

In response, House Speaker Lucas formed a task force of legislators, business and education professionals, including representatives of the school districts that sued the state, to propose how the state should address inequities between affluent schools and poor ones.

The House-appointed task force and its subcommittees have been meeting since the beginning of the year. It plans to produce a report in January with policy recommendations.

The process, Lucas said, “has been incredibly difficult for us, and I thought we were making tremendous progress.”

The state Senate also named a committee, which has been meeting, to try to address the high court’s school-equity ruling.

Lucas said the timing of Thursday’s order could be politically motivated.

“To have this ruling come at this point in time certainly makes me wonder whether the court is worried about this issue or just creating a legacy of the chief justice prior to her term expiring.”

Toal, who retires at the end of this year, said Thursday it would be inappropriate for her, as a member of the court, to comment on Thursday’s order, adding it speaks for itself.

However, she added, the order was the court’s reaction to a request by the rural school districts. In June, those districts asked the court to create a framework to guide the state and school districts as they sought a school-equity solution.

Toal’s retirement could create a power shift on the court that could impact its involvement with the school-funding lawsuit.

Earlier this year, legislators elected Associate Justice Pleicones to succeed Toal as chief justice. Pleicones, who dissented from the court’s 2014 school-equity ruling and Thursday’s order setting deadlines, will be presiding over the court when the school-reform proposal is scheduled to reach the court for review early next year.

On Thursday, the court ordered the formation of a panel of three experts by Oct. 15 to identify the educational needs of students in the poor, rural districts that sued the state.

The General Assembly and school districts each will choose and pay for one expert on that three-member panel. State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman will be the third expert.

The governor, S.C. House and state Senate have until Feb. 1 to present the court and the school districts with a plan to address the needs of poor schools, including legislation and dates to put that plan into action.

School districts have until March 1 to respond to the state plan.

The panel of experts has until March 15 to produce a written report evaluating the state’s plan.

The Supreme Court then will review the plan and the experts’ report, and issue an order stating whether the plan is a “rational means of bringing the system of public education in South Carolina into constitutional compliance.”

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What’s next?

Oct. 15: A three-member panel of experts, including the S.C. schools superintendent, starts reviewing the needs of poor rural schools.

Feb. 1: Governor, legislators must offer a plan to the Supreme Court and school districts to address inequities in schools.

March 1: School districts respond to the state plan.

March 15: Panel of experts produces a written report evaluating the state’s plan.

Later: Supreme Court will review the state’s plan and experts’ evaluation, ruling whether the plan can improve rural schools.