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SC leaders’ school fix update short on solutions, advocate charges

State lawmakers’ efforts this year to improve public schools amounted to “tinkering around the edges without offering meaningful remedies,” an attorney representing poor, rural school districts says.

Carl Epps, a Nelson Mullins attorney representing school districts that sued the state in 1993 for more support, was critiquing an update state lawmakers filed Wednesday with the S.C. Supreme Court.

The report, outlining the steps that lawmakers took this year to improve public schools, cited more than $100 million in new state spending in the districts that sued the state. That spending, in the state budget that starts Friday, includes more money for teacher pay raises, technology and technical assistance, and teacher recruitment efforts for rural districts.

State lawmakers agreed this year to spend more than $300 million in added money on education for all school districts.

Gov. Nikki Haley, who backed the initiatives in her executive budget, also submitted an update to the court, outlining her push for more state spending on students living in poverty, technology and reading coaches, among other initiatives.

The Supreme Court ordered an update from S.C. leaders after ruling in 2014 that public schools did not provide children in poor, rural schools the quality of education guaranteed by the state Constitution. That ruling came in response to a 1993 lawsuit brought by more than 30 poor, rural districts against the state.

In their update, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, also outlined meetings of task forces in the House and Senate to examine the state of public education.

The House panel produced a report with dozens of recommendations that led to eight bills, four of which became law this year.

Two of the newly passed laws redefined what a S.C. high-school graduate should know and be able to do, and called for a survey aimed at identifying ways to entice new teachers to work in rural, low-income districts.

Two other new laws codify efforts already underway at the S.C. Department of Education under the leadership of Superintendent Molly Spearman. The laws require the department to provide technical assistance to struggling districts and to maintain an office that reviews and assists lower performing districts.

But the bill that stood to make the biggest impact on poor schools did not pass.

First pitched by Haley in January, the proposal called for spending $200 million in state money to help districts pay to renovate and rebuild aging school facilities. The House passed the bill, but it died in the Senate as the clock ran out on the legislative session.

Lucas and Leatherman did not promise to pass that bill next year.

But they did say the effort to improve public education is ongoing. “The Senate and the House are mindful of the mandate from the Court and are working diligently to improve the educational system for the benefit of all students.”

The court ordered an update from state leaders after ruling in 2014 that the state’s public schools did not provide children in poor, rural school districts the quality of education guaranteed by the state Constitution. That ruling came in response to a 1993 lawsuit brought by more than 30 poor, rural districts against the state.

Epps said the update that legislative leaders filed with the court Wednesday “confirms what we already know.”

“The Senate and the House held a number of committee meetings and received a lot of valuable information from highly qualified and talented people explicitly describing these children’s plight and what needs to be done to offer them an education.”

But, he added, the time for major reforms is overdue.

“A 7-year-old second grader who was in one of the impacted schools is now 30,” Epps said. “Another generation of children now takes their place.”

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