Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Instead of complaining, SC lawmakers should beat Supreme Court deadline on education order

SC House of Representatives
SC House of Representatives gmelendez@thestate.com

HOUSE SPEAKER Jay Lucas was right when he complained last week that it was “arbitrary” for the state Supreme Court to set a Feb. 1 deadline for the Legislature and governor to submit a plan to fix the problems in South Carolina’s poorest schools.

He was right when he implied that it’s nearly meaningless for the defendants in the Abbeville v. South Carolina school adequacy case to present the court with a “plan” rather than a law. A plan is only as good as the planners’ ability to get it passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the governor, and the only way to do that is … to do it.

But Mr. Lucas and everyone else who suggests that there is no need for a deadline is dead wrong.

The South Carolina Constitution makes it abundantly clear that it is the duty of the General Assembly to provide a decent education to all the children in this state.

For decades, it has been abundantly clear that children in the poorest school districts were lagging far behind the children in better-off districts.

For 22 years — since 40 rural school districts concentrated in what has come to be known as the Corridor of Shame filed the lawsuit — our legislators have been on official notice of their failure.

Even if they didn’t have a speck of compassion for the least of these or care a whit about fairness, any lawmakers who intend to live out their lives in South Carolina, or who hope that their children or grandchildren will do the same, would have acted out of pure self-interest. They would have acted because children who don’t get a decent education will end up in dead-end jobs, at best, and they will raise another generation of children just like themselves, and we will have to pay for their welfare benefits and medical benefits. And if they can’t get any jobs and instead turn to crime, we will become their victims, and we will pay for the extra police we need to protect ourselves from them, and the jails that become their homes.

Yet for 22 years, our legislators have done absolutely nothing to fix the problems raised in the Abbeville lawsuit.

No, worse than nothing.

They have spent more than two decades and God only knows how much of our tax money fighting that lawsuit — paying lawyers and experts to argue that everything in those plaintiff districts was just fine and dandy, when anyone with eyes could see that it was not.

The way forward was clear from the start: for legislators to make the lawsuit moot, by fixing the problems before the justices could get around to issuing an order. But they refused, and last fall the justices finally ruled that the state is failing its constitutional obligation to provide the children in our poorest school districts with an 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.

The court was, appropriately, not prescriptive: Fix the problem however you want to fix it, the justices said; just fix it. That will require focusing on solutions rather than politics, on making hard choices themselves instead of pushing them down to school district officials with widely varying abilities and not following through when those officials fail to make sure children are educated.

The court, inappropriately, it turns out, did not set a deadline. Until last week, by which time it had become painfully clear even to people who do not understand our Legislature that our Legislature does not do hard things until it has no choice. So the court set a Feb. 1 deadline for the defendants to present a plan to address the problems set forth in last year’s landmark ruling.

Arbitrary? Absolutely. That’s pretty much the definition of a deadline. Sort of like Mr. Lucas’ Jan. 12 deadline for his own impressive panel to produce a plan to guide the Legislature’s response to the court order.

Mr. Lucas and Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman seem more inclined than legislative leaders we have had in the past generation to provide a decent education to all children in our state. But they clearly are in no hurry.

As I noted when he announced it, Mr. Lucas’ own deadline wasn’t just arbitrary but arbitrarily late. He needs to move it up, or committee members need to take it upon themselves to wrap up their work and issue their recommendations in November. Mr. Leatherman’s panel needs to do likewise. That way bills can be drafted and pre-filed, and the House and Senate Education committees can debate, amend and approve those bills in December and have them waiting for the House and Senate to take up on the first day of the 2016 legislative session.

It is a travesty that a lawsuit was filed and that the Legislature, upon service of that suit, did not immediately get to work fixing the problems. It is outrageous that the Supreme Court has set a deadline — not because it’s inappropriate for the court to order the Legislature to obey the Constitution, but because no one ever should have to order the Legislature to obey the Constitution.

Now that the deadline has been set, our Legislature needs to do precisely what Mr. Lucas’ criticism, logically extended, would require: Don’t simply present the court with a “plan” hatched by the attorneys for the governor and the Legislature. Give it, and us, a law — passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the governor and ready to put into action.

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

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