COLUMBIA - In 1993, roughly half of South Carolina's school districts, including Berkeley County, felt they had run out of options. They banded together to sue the state for what they viewed as a failure to provide students an adequate education.
No one thought that more than 20 years later, and just two years after the state Supreme Court asked to hear the case for a second time, Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina would still be undecided.
But there is a growing whisper in Columbia education and political circles that the Supreme Court is looking to formulate a final decision sooner rather than later, perhaps by the end of the year. It's a resolution that both sides say they want to see - and one that education proponents hope would be as consequential for the state as the landmark U.S. Supreme Court civil rights decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended school segregation.
The case strikes a deep chord with civil rights advocates, who see parallels with the Brown decision: the school districts are predominantly black and impoverished, and the chance at a good education has long been seen as society's great equalizer. In this case, advocates believe that justice has been denied to generations of children while the case waits for a decision.
In court, attorneys focused on eight rural districts to help shorten an already complex trial. The districts' attorney argued that the Legislature had not complied with a S.C. Supreme Court ruling that a "minimally adequate eduction" is guaranteed under the state constitution.
In South Carolina, minimally adequate has been defined as giving students safe and adequate facilities where they 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, a Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough attorney on the case since the beginning, said that if a U.S. Supreme Court justice from the 1950s Brown era walked into some of South Carolina's rural schools, they would wonder if their decision had any effect. While it's up to the Legislature to determine how to better educate the state's students, he believes a favorable Supreme Court ruling could help turn the tide for the state's struggling schools.
"The state Supreme Court has not only the right but the obligation to uphold the Constitution," Epps said.
Supreme Court decision?
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal could not be reached for comment, but proponents hope that Toal, who is in her final term and will not face the General Assembly for re-election, may be inclined to push the court to decide the case.
The courts generally do not decide consequential cases right before a state election or when the General Assembly is in session, said Bud Ferillo, producer of the documentary "Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina's Rural Schools," which drew attention to the issue. That could pave the way for a decision after November's election. Many of the school districts involved are along the I-95 corridor and have subpar facilities - in some cases simply run down - and struggle to attract and retain teachers.
"Several justices have stated publicly that a decision might be forthcoming sooner than later, but it is a hugely complicated case and one that will require at least three votes one way or the other to decide it," Ferillo said in an email.
Columbia-based attorney Bobby Stepp, who represents the state in the case, said he had not heard the court could be closer to a decision. "I've spent 15 years with the case, and I'd like to see the final resolution," he said.
Stepp said that educational attainment isn't simply linked to how much money the Legislature dedicates to education or a specific school district, a common misconception. Some of the districts represented in the lawsuit spent more per capita than wealthier regions - meaning the decision for the court doesn't come down to dollars and cents or any other simple remedy.
"There are no silver bullets," Stepp said. "This is a very complicated, multi-faceted issue. You just can't legislate better student achievement."
Both sides agree that a decision in the case could be a complex undertaking, especially given how much time has passed: The school used as a symbol of dysfunction for South Carolina's rural schools, J.V. Martin Junior High in Dillon, has been replaced and educational data used to argue the case in the first place is more than a decade old.
And the Legislature, in what some viewed as a nod toward a lower court decision in the case, allocated more money to pre-kindergarten and reading programs this year.
Lack of progress in rural districts
Still, there are signs that progress has been slow. The state's rural schools are the third worst in the nation when it comes to the need for attention from state officials and lawmakers, according to a study by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust.
The report's five gauges clearly show that the sheer number of South Carolina's rural minority students combined with a depth of poverty and major unemployment creates a situation that has yielded poorly performing students. It's what the districts' proponents call "generational poverty."
The report also said South Carolina's third worst ranking "stems mostly from the diversity of ... student population and from the severe socioeconomic challenges facing families in rural areas."
About two out of five students in South Carolina attend rural schools.
Frustration with the court grows.
Tom Truitt, former superintendent of a Florence-area school district that was part of the original suit, said some things have gotten better and some have stayed the same. He asked why the court doesn't pay attention to a long forgotten state statute that says the Supreme Court should make its rulings within 60 days of hearing the case. The law is clear: "The justices of the Supreme Court shall file their decisions within 60 days from the last day of the court at which the cases were heard," it says.
"I think it's disturbing when the highest court in the land doesn't follow their own laws," Truitt said. "But what do you do about it?"
Attorneys associated with the case said they were unfamiliar with the law.
Truitt said he recognizes why a decision is difficult in the case. "They're very sympathetic but they don't know what to do," Truitt said.
Much has changed since the case was first heard, including the death of the plaintiffs' lead counsel, Steve Morrison, a Nelson Mullins lawyer who was a giant of the profession. Morrison died last year.
Epps, his longtime co-counsel, said in a recent interview at the Columbia law office that he thinks about the case every day. He first tried the case, he said, when he was 49 and had brown hair. Now 70 and silver, he said he wants to see a resolution in his lifetime.
"Any measurable characteristic, the school districts we represent have not made any progress than when we tried the case," he said. "I don't think our General Assembly is serious about it. The state's primary obligation is to educate its people. And I don't think we've ever embraced the concept that we're talking about educating everybody."
Epps is a believer that the case will be resolved soon. But he won't criticize the justices for its lack of a decision.
"I'm a great believer in the system," Epps said. "I think things tend to work out, and I think this will work out."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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