Ernest Finney rests in the shade on the back deck of his lakefront home in Columbia and grins at the thought of the state Supreme Court ruling he wrote in a case that holds the potential to improve many of South Carolina's chronically underperforming public schools.

What does 'minimally adequate education' mean?

When the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the state is required by the constituition to provide children a “minimally adequate education,” the court also included a three-point definition of what that meant:

The ability to read, write and speak the English languge, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science.

A fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and of history and governmental process.

Academic and vocational skills.

“That was probably not the brightest moment in my career,” the former chief justice says, then laughs.

In that 1999 ruling, Finney penned this sentence:

“The South Carolina Constitution's education clause requires the General Assembly to provide the opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate education.”

Those last three words, “minimally adequate education,” have become infamous, derided by critics of the state's public education system as emblematic of what's wrong with South Carolina.

Former Gov. Dick Riley, who championed improved public education during his two terms from 1979 to 1987, recently called the words “embarrassing.” Riley, who also served as secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, said he doesn't know of another state that promises to provide its children with a minimally adequate education.

“We need, really, a movement toward focusing on education. ... If we're going to do anything for education, everybody in the state has to be focused in on it. We have to change our culture,” Riley said.

And one way to start is “change minimally adequate education.”

Keeping the suit alive

Many people believe Finney's three words are part of what the state's constitution prescribes. In actuality, the constitution says only that, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the state.”

Finney says he wrote those three words because he was afraid that he wouldn't have been able to persuade a majority of the five Supreme Court justices to go along if he didn't use that watered-down language.

He worried that stronger words dictating a quality education would prompt other justices to reject his argument, because it smacked of an effort by the court to legislate.

If that happened, a lawsuit attempting to force the state to improve public education in poor school districts would have died. And Finney didn't want it to die.

He saw the case as an opportunity for the Supreme Court to require the state to improve public education statewide.

Education is one of only two functions, other than the operation of state governmnent, that the constitution requires of the state. Finney felt the state's leaders shirked that duty with “an attitude that education was not the way we wanted to invest our assets.”

“That seemed like a cop-out to me,” Finney says. So he seized the opportunity the lawsuit gave him.

“I wanted to pressure the system, and at the same time provide for an expansion of education. I wish we could have done more. I had hoped that if we could preserve the basis of the lawsuit, we should do everything humanly possible to support quality education.”

Finney's words worked. Three of his four fellow justices signed on to the ruling.

The lawsuit, filed in 1993 by 40 largely rural, poor and black school districts, sought to force the state to increase the amount of money for their schools. The districts, which included Berkeley County, claimed that without additional state money they could not adequately educate their children.

As a result of Finney's 1999 ruling, the so-called “school equity” lawsuit went to trial on the basis of whether the state provided the school districts with a minimally adequate education.

In 2005, Lee County Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper issued a split decision. He ruled that the constitution placed no requirement on the state for any specific level of education quality, only that it provide free and open public schools. However, he also ruled that the state did not do enough to educate preschool children.

That decision also was appealed to the state Supreme Court. The high court heard arguments late last year, and a decision is expected this year.

Hell from the black community

Finney, 81, retired from the Supreme Court a year after he wrote the “minimally adequate education” ruling. He smiles with satisfaction knowing that the high court now must determine if the state is providing such an education in many of the poor districts along the I-95 corridor and Mill Crescent.

Finney was the state's first black chief justice since Reconstruction, and confesses to an affinity for the school kids in those poor school districts. He came of age in racially segregated schools, and describes his father as a dedicated educator who instilled him with respect for education.

His dad taught high school in Conway and later served as dean at Claflin College in Orangeburg.

After Finney graduated in 1954 from law school at what is now South Carolina State University, he couldn't find a job as a lawyer, and moved to Conway to try his hand in teaching. Five years later he set up a law practice in Sumter where he championed individual civil rights.

His experience living and working in Sumter showed him that the state's main way of helping public education in rural counties didn't work. State leaders consistently contended that its focus on bringing in new industries provided the best hope for creating jobs, boosting the economy and ultimately increasing money for local schools.

Unfortunately, Finney says, that form of trickle-down education funding didn't work in most rural areas because most of the businesses the state recruited went to the state's metro areas. Sumter and most other rural counties got little direct benefit, he says.

That may change for Sumter since Continental Tire announced plans in 2011 to build a $500 million plant there and create about 1,600 new jobs.

Finney says that when he persuaded his fellow Supreme Court justices to go along with his three words, he worried that he would ignite a firestorm of opposition and accusations of judicial meddling in legislative affairs.

He also thought he was the only justice who wanted the Supreme Court to keep control of the state's role in education. “I felt I was alone ... I was busy working, trying to make sure the state stayed in. I was desperate.”

To his surprise he got little opposition from the other justices, and the decision caused almost no major political or public outrage.

“Leadership historically in South Carolina did not endorse the idea of spending money to promote education for our children. I thought I'd get tarred and feathered and run out of the state,” Finney says.

He did get his share of criticism, but it was more over his three words, not the potential impact of the ruling on the state's role in education.

“I caught as much hell from the black community for the use of that phrase as I did from the other. ... Minimally adequate! God Almighty, I must have been having a bad day.”

Finney believes his words worked because they “implied the court was not going to be as forceful in achieving our goal. It did not upset the rich areas of the state. At the same time, it preserved hope.”

“We need to improve education if we want to improve our state. Education is everything,” Finney says.

“I don't understand what gets into us that we short-change education — and I'm being nice.”

If leaders would put shoulder to the wheel, they should do everything humanly possible to support quality education.”

While Finney's three words have drawn wide condemnation, less known is what else he slipped into the 1999 ruling a definition of what the high court meant by “minimally adequate education.”

That definition beefed up minimally adequate. In addition to providing students with “adequate and safe facilities,” the ruling requires that students have the opportunity to acquire not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but history, science, economics, civics and social studies.

All in all, Finney considers what he did “a good day's work,” because it kept the case alive and didn't cause any strong backlash from opponents.

“We had to impress upon the citizens of our state that education was going to be the basis upon which we grew and prospered or else we would fail.

“My goal was to make sure the educational system would provide opportunity to all of our children to the best of our ability.”