Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: One year after Abbeville school ruling, some progress, and some clarification

SC Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justices Don Beatty and Kaye Hearn listen to arguments in the Abbeville v SC school adequacy case. They wrote the majority opinion ordering the state to provide a decent education to all students.
SC Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justices Don Beatty and Kaye Hearn listen to arguments in the Abbeville v SC school adequacy case. They wrote the majority opinion ordering the state to provide a decent education to all students. tdominick@thestate.com

WHEN THE S.C. Supreme Court ruled a year ago today that the state had to provide a decent education to all children, it was met with two major objections: It had no right to tell the Legislature to act, and in any event, the court was vague about what it expected the state to do.

No law has been passed or even proposed in the year since then. And after the court acted on Sept. 24 to put some teeth into its Abbeville v. South Carolina decision, it looked as though we were getting into a constitutional crisis the likes of which our state has not seen since the 1970s.

But that crisis was resolved last week, when the court removed those teeth — that is, it abandoned the deadlines and expert review panel that had legislative leaders in open defiance of the court. And the legal, political and constitutional back-and-forth that has gone on since the Sept. 24 order has actually moved us — dramatically — toward some meeting of the minds, on both fronts.

SC Supreme Court drops February deadline for education fix

The court’s latest order reads as though it was granting a request from the school districts that brought the Abbeville lawsuit 22 years ago alleging that the state was failing in its constitutional duty to provide children in every district with the opportunity to get a decent education. That characterization was a stretch — the school districts only made their request for the new order after the Legislature demanded it — but let’s just recognize that both sides were trying to save face in the constitutional standoff between the legislative and judicial branches of our government; what matters is that the standoff was resolved.

And in the course of that resolution, the state modified its position dramatically. First, in a tiny sentence near the end of its Oct. 26 court filing, the state noted that “In issuing its opinion in this case, the Court’s majority was acting within its right to declare the law and to identify a constitutional violation.” That is, the Legislature and the governor and the attorney general no longer question the legitimacy of the court’s Nov. 12, 2014, order. This is huge, if not legally then certainly politically.

The state went on to argue that “There is no reason to assume that the General Assembly will not act to remedy the educational deficiency of the Plaintiff Districts.” That might be boilerplate language that you’d expect in a brief arguing for the court to revoke its deadlines, and it’s consistent with what Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman and House Speaker Jay Lucas have been saying all year. But coming right after the acknowledgment of the 2014 order’s legitimacy, it strikes me very much as a statement of good faith. Which I wasn’t so sure we could expect after that nasty extra-judicial response to the court’s deadlines by Mr. Leatherman and Mr. Lucas.

Countdown to crisis? Leatherman-Lucas letter to Toal puts state just one step away

Meantime, the court has addressed the complaint of vagueness. I’m not sure the court intended to provide clarification, but summarizing a long and complicated position forces you to decide what you consider most important. And that’s what the court did in its Sept. 24 and Nov. 5 orders.

Both brief orders reiterate the finding that the school districts “were partially responsible for their own problems, at times prioritizing popular programs such as student athletics above the academic environment.” Both orders note that the court ordered the plaintiffs and the state to work together to design a remedy.

Both orders also summarize what the court expects the state to address in its remedy: “alarmingly-low student and school district performance, insufficient transportation, poor teacher quality, high teacher turnover, local legislation, school district size, and poverty.”

That certainly is a daunting list, and there’s little reason to believe that the Legislature will be able to eliminate poverty in the plaintiff districts, or even raise test scores dramatically in the short term. (One order characterized the list as factors contributing to the problem, the other as the violations themselves.) But there’s nothing vague about the list.

Crisis averted, it’s time to get back to work on SC rural schools solution

Two of the items — the Legislature’s practice of passing single-district laws that can interfere with smart state education policy and the large number of inefficiently small school districts — can and should be addressed without spending a penny, and there’s not even anything complicated about them. A third — insufficient transportation — is likewise straightforward, although addressing it will cost money.

For the more difficult tasks, the bar is not nearly as high as the defenders of the status quo would have us believe. As the court notes, what it will be looking to determine when the state reports on its progress this summer is whether its “efforts are a rational means of bringing the system of public education in South Carolina into constitutional compliance.”

Essentially, the court’s yardstick is this: Stop ignoring the problem that you’ve been ignoring for decades. Recognize that providing a decent education to all children is your constitutional responsibility. Make a good-faith effort.

That hardly seems like too much to ask of those who have promised to serve the best interests of our state, and who have sworn a duty to uphold and defend our constitution.

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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