COLUMBIA, S.C. -- An education funding lawsuit that pits poor, rural districts against legislators is back before the state Supreme Court, which could finally decide whether South Carolina’s public schools provide all students the opportunity to succeed.
It’s been more than four years since lawyers for both sides last argued their case on the two-decades-old lawsuit, filed in 1993 by 40 of the state’s then-91 districts.
In the interim, the case once championed by proponents for its potential to force the Legislature to radically alter school funding has been largely forgotten and is rarely mentioned at the Statehouse. But in a surprise move in May, the high court ordered a re-hearing and invited both sides to file briefs regarding laws passed since 2005. Arguments start Tuesday morning.
Much has changed since June 2008, when the court first heard both sides’ appeal, including two new justices on the bench.
But the premise remains: Justices are asked to decide whether South Carolina schools provide all students access to a “minimally adequate education,” the constitutional standard they set in their 1999 ruling that sent the case to trial.
That 15-month trial, which focused on the plight of eight districts, resulted in a ruling that gave both sides a partial victory. Both sides appealed the part they lost.
The high court has several options.
The justices could side with the rural districts and order legislators to do more to help them hire top-notch teachers, fix dilapidated school buildings and stock classrooms. They could side with the state and reverse the lower court’s order that legislators do more in the early years to help poor children overcome the effects of generational poverty. They could uphold the split decision.
Or, in a new twist, they could declare the case moot, as the state’s attorney requested in documents filed since May.
“A decision based on an outdated factual record will not be helpful,” attorney Bobby Stepp wrote. “We have a case that has been pending for 18 years without any final decision being rendered. These reasons compel the conclusion that this court should dismiss this appeal as moot.”
One reason, he said, is the full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program that legislators created in 2006 in response to the order. The program is still considered a pilot and is limited to at-risk children in plaintiff districts — a solution that educators contend fell far short of the judge’s order for early interventions.
Stepp’s list of changes since 2005 also includes a revamped testing system, district mergers, and new schools.
The attorneys for the school districts, however, argue the lack of change means students in these areas are worse off.
Despite years of talk about an overhaul, school funding is still based on a 1977 law that defined the so-called “base student cost” — to fund what was considered minimum at the time — and a 1984 law that added an extra penny to the state sales tax for innovative programs.
The districts contend that tax relief measures enacted since 2005, as well as actions that legislators took amid the recession, have only exacerbated the problem.
The compounding effect “makes it impossible for the poorest and most isolated children in rural South Carolina to receive adequate educational opportunities,” reads a June filing from the districts’ three attorneys. “From the filing of this lawsuit to the trial to the present, the situation is at best virtually unchanged and, in many ways, worse today than ever.”
A decision could come down to a threshold that critics call absurdly low. Since 2006, Democratic legislators have introduced measures that would ask voters to amend the state constitution to require that all children receive a high-quality education, replacing the court’s “minimally adequate” interpretation. But those proposals have never left committee.
Stepp reasserts his argument that opportunities for the defined minimal education exist, no matter what the actual achievement levels.
Whatever the court decides — if it does — radical change seems unlikely. Policy details would still be up to the Legislature.
Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge the state’s education-funding formulas are antiquated and ridiculously complicated, and the desire to change them has picked up support in recent years. But they’ve so far been unable to agree on what that change should look like and are not optimistic that will occur next year either.