COLUMBIA— There’s no question that some South Carolina public schools haven’t done enough for their poor, rural students, but the state’s highest court is trying to figure out whether the state’s system has at least offered those children the opportunity to earn a “minimally adequate education.”
Where the issue stands
The issue: Do South Carolina’s public schools offer all students the opportunity to earn a minimally adequate education?latest developments: The state Supreme Court reheard arguments on the 19-year-old case, which has been on appeal at this level since 2008.What’s next: The state Supreme Court will make a decision, such as ordering the state to do more for schools, uphold the lower court’s decision, or declare the case moot based on outdated factual record.
The state Supreme Court has been silent on the state’s landmark school funding lawsuit since hearing appeals four years ago, but it asked attorneys to appear before the court Tuesday to discuss the case again.
The five justices didn’t announce any decision during the roughly two-hour hearing, but they repeatedly asked attorneys from both sides about what their ruling should cover and how far it should go.
Attorneys for the plaintiff districts suggested that the court look to other states, such as Washington, as an example, and tell South Carolina lawmakers to figure out what these at-risk children needed, figure out programs to provide that and implement them.
The state’s attorney said if the court found fault with the state’s system, it couldn’t mandate specific solutions, but it could identify problem areas.
“What I have a problem with is telling the General Assembly how it has to fix it or directing the process of what the General Assembly must do it fix it,” said Bobby Stepp, attorney for the state, to the court. “I think that those are beyond the scope of your powers.”
The Abbeville County School District vs. State of South Carolina dates to 1993 and began with 40 school districts, including Berkeley County. Attorneys focused on eight rural districts to help shorten an already complex trial, and the districts’ attorney argued that the state does not provide a “minimally adequate education.”
In South Carolina, minimally adequate has been defined as giving students safe and adequate facilities where students have the opportunity to learn to read, write and speak English; learn math and science; understand history and government; and have a fundamental knowledge about economic, social and political systems.
Carl Epps III, attorney for the plaintiff districts, emphasized the critical nature of this case during his court appearance Tuesday.
“We literally stand at a precipice of a moment in time in our state’s history where this court’s decision, in all honesty, will determine whether these children, this segment of our state’s population, is going to be doomed to repeat what’s happened to generation upon generation,” he said.
“If we don’t take the steps to educate these children, we know what the outcomes are going to be.”
Stepp countered later that this case is not nor ever has been about what is best for education in South Carolina; that’s for the Legislature to determine. It’s not about what educational policies might serve the state better, or what the state needs to do to improve student achievement, he said.
The case is about whether the state has fulfilled its obligation to give every child the opportunity for a minimally adequate education, which is a low bar and a difficult test to flunk.
“We all want education to improve,” he said. “We all share the passion to see South Carolina do better. That’s not the question, and a decision in favor of the defense doesn’t mean that won’t happen.”
Chief Justice Jean Toal asked questions about whether these small, rural school districts were too tiny and spent too much on administrative costs rather than classroom instruction, and she questioned whether students would be served better in consolidated districts. That is an issue under lawmakers’ jurisdiction.
“If the children are not receiving the opportunity, is that a violation of a constitutional mandate, or is that lack of political will on the General Assembly ... in not attacking the root problem that faces these children — that they are in very small districts?” she said.
Justice Costa Pleicones said everyone agrees that the school districts’ problems are rooted in poverty, and he wondered whether the court was being asked to eradicate poverty in those areas. He said he is trying to figure out the appropriate role for the court versus the Legislature.
Epps responded by saying that the court wasn’t asked to eliminate poverty, but that can happen by offering educational opportunities.
Stepp told the court so much has changed since this case was tried that it’s impossible to know now whether that has helped or hurt the plaintiff districts.
He suggested that the courts could dismiss the appeal and declare the case “moot” because of outdated facts.
“There’s not really a record that reflects what the actual conditions in these plaintiff districts are today,” he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.