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Increased education spending in South Carolina still doesn't go far enough to level disparities, some lawmakers say

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Classrooms are ready for students at Whitesides Elementary School in Mount Pleasant. (File)

COLUMBIA — Those looking to improve public education in South Carolina have some reason to celebrate with the passage of this year's state budget. 

State lawmakers in the House and Senate voted Tuesday to boost funding for K through 12 schools by roughly $140 million over last year's spending plan, while also covering $68 million in Hurricane Matthew cleanup costs and $150 million for the state's underfunded pension system. 

The education spending includes $28.9 million for new school buses, $60 million to increase the state's per-pupil funding to $2,425 a student and $55 million for school repairs in low-income districts in the state. 

The boost is seen as an improvement by many in the Statehouse, but the additional education spending continues to be affected by a 2014 state Supreme Court order that found the Legislature was not providing a "minimally adequate" education to students in poor, rural and minority school districts. 

"It's a significant amount of money but does that solve all of the issues? Absolutely not," said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, one of six budget compromise negotiators.

"Every child in South Carolina deserves a quality education no matter where they live, and I think that's the real issue," he added. 

In the more than two-decade-old legal battle — known as the Abbeville decision — the state Supreme Court ruled it would maintain control of the schools funding case until it found state lawmakers made a "reasonable start" in fixing the disparities in the state's education system. 

Several Republican lawmakers were happy to see the Legislature, which their party controls, trying to improve the state's education system, but they didn't believe additional funding is all of the solution. 

"I don't think it's going to help one bit," said Rep. Bill Herberksman, R-Bluffton. "I think it's throwing money at a problem when the solution is not money." 

Others questioned the Supreme Court's legitimacy in claiming oversight of a Statehouse matter, such as education funding. They suggested education policy changes could be more effective than the state contributing more money to rural districts. 

"The courts should not have been involved in that decision to start with," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston. "How we fund education is squarely a matter for the General Assembly to decide and not the courts." 

He's vowed to never vote for any of the state Supreme Court justices that issued the majority opinion in the Abbeville case again. He said the state needs to be looking more at expanding school choice options and charter schools in South Carolina.  

Many Democrats, and the lawyers representing the rural school districts that sued the state, have a different take. Lawmakers have to file a report with the Supreme Court on June 30 describing what progress they have made in the past year. 

“The main thing that the Legislature has not done that they need to do is develop a plan for how to deal with the unconstitutional infirmities in the state,” said Laura Hart, one of the attorneys representing the Abbeville schools. “This is not a one-year fix. It has taken years to develop these problems.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she was upset the final budget only includes $55 million to cover school repair costs at the schools covered by the lawsuit and other districts in the state that have more than 80 percent of their students coming in from below the poverty line.   

"We are continuing the disparity, we're not closing the gap," she said. "I am not one who sees roses as far as the funding is concerned." 

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