Cindi Ross Scoppe

SC legislators say it’s time for the court to back off on poor schools. It’s not.

OUR LEGISLATORS are right: The state Supreme Court shouldn’t be involved in the effort to make sure all kids in South Carolina get a decent education.

That’s not a constitutional statement. It’s a political statement.

I don’t mean the court shouldn’t still be involved. I mean it never should have been involved — because there never should have been any need for it to get involved.

The Legislature should have addressed the legitimate concerns of the state’s poorest school districts without those districts having to take the state to court — and certainly without them having to spend 21 years waiting for a decision, and now a resolution.

It was painfully clear way back when Abbeville County School District et al v. State of South Carolina was first filed — and even clearer in subsequent years, as new testing programs shone a brighter spotlight on the schools’ shortcomings — that children in our poorest districts aren’t getting the education they need. The education we need them to have.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

The Legislature didn’t need a court to tell it that the constitutional obligation to make sure those kids get that decent education rests upon the state. That the districts are subdivisions of the state, whose sole purpose is to carry out the duties the state has assumed.

At any time from 1993 until today, the Legislature could have mooted the lawsuit, by changing the laws and, yes, probably spending more money, although not that alone. Instead, for nearly all of that time, the Legislature used the very existence of the lawsuit as an excuse to do nothing. We have to wait until the court rules, lawmakers said, over and over.

Then the court finally ruled, in 2014. And legislators promptly declared that the court had no business ruling. Which translates into, “the court has no business ruling against us.” Which exposes the “wait for the courts” argument for what it was: a delay, based on the expectation that the court would never make the Legislature do anything.

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Today’s legislative leaders have acknowledged, through their actions as well as their words, that the state has not historically provided all children with a decent education. But now they say they’ve taken care of that, or at least shown enough commitment to taking care of it to be left alone. Trust us, they say.

You can argue about whether the court should have retained jurisdiction after its ruling — as the House, the Senate and the governor continue to do, in their annual progress reports to the court. I’m agnostic on both the initial decision and continued jurisdiction. Although the court’s majority made a compelling case, the dissent did too, and I’m not certain whether the problems in our poorest school districts actually constitute a constitutional violation. But as we’ve discussed before, what the court says a constitution requires is what that constitution requires, unless the court changes its mind or the constitution is changed.

If the Legislature hadn’t done enough a year ago for the court to relinquish jurisdiction, it hasn’t done enough now.

And when you consider legislators’ report on their progress, this is clear: If the Legislature hadn’t done enough a year ago for the court to relinquish jurisdiction, it hasn’t done enough now, because this year, the Legislature did … well, not a lot.

Yes, lawmakers passed bills to further study the districts’ needs — and that is valuable, as long as it doesn’t become an excuse for more delay — and to impose additional accountability measures, also useful.

But the plaintiffs make a compelling case that the Legislature is not doing anything comprehensive or new — just a little more of this and a little more of that.

The bill the House calls its ‘crown jewel’ for the year is still sitting in a Senate subcommittee.

The bill the House calls its “crown jewel” for the year, a measure to borrow up to $200 million annually to repair dilapidated schools, is still sitting in a Senate subcommittee, and getting dismissed in the Senate’s report to the court as being simultaneously premature and potentially dilatory.

And legislators are trying to have it both ways. They say the solution isn’t spending more money in poor districts while at the same time saying, “Look at all this additional money we’re spending.”

I agree that money isn’t the solution — although it’s part of the solution. But if they’re going to brag about their spending, they need to be completely honest about it. They’re not.

Lawmakers throw around a lot of misleading charts and out-of-context numbers to impress the court with how much they have increased spending. They don’t mention that they’re still spending less per pupil than they did in 2007; that’s not less in inflation-adjusted dollars, but less in total dollars. They don’t mention that state law requires them to spend about $500 more per student than they are spending. By the school districts’ calculation, that’s an annual shortfall of $400 million, or about 17 percent.

A lot of legislators honestly want to provide a decent education to all the children in this state. But before the court relinquishes jurisdiction over a case 24 years in the making, it needs to consider not just how little has been accomplished so far. It also needs to consider what it says about good faith that lawmakers would present it with such a distorted picture of their education spending.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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