COLUMBIA — Three years ago, educators in South Carolina's poor, rural school districts rejoiced in winning a decades-long court battle that found the state fails to provide their students even the bare minimum in education opportunities.
They expected the S.C. Supreme Court's order to force wholesale change.
Now South Carolina's Republican legislative leaders are applauding the same court's 3-2 decision this month to close the case for good, saying the justices' decision to end oversight shows they are satisfied with legislators' efforts.
So what have years of study actually produced?
More money but better results?
Since the state's high court ordered legislators in November 2014 to fix the system — without specifying how — the Legislature has collectively pumped more than $600 million additionally into K-12 public schools.
That includes about $100 million for technology improvements, $110 million for reading coaches, and $23 million for summer reading camps — spending tied to the "Read to Succeed" law passed months before the ruling that GOP leaders accused justices of not taking into account.
That law also called for eventually expanding statewide a full-day pre-kindergarten program for poor 4-year-olds, an initiative long pushed by Democrats. Three years later, 64 of 80 districts are eligible for the program.
Also in 2014, legislators added a poverty "weighting" to a main funding formula, essentially recognizing that it takes more money to educate poor kids.
Changes since the high court's ruling include a new allocation for districts with the highest teacher turnover. About $7 million was distributed last year to 30 districts, used primarily for training and salary stipends. And 48 districts are splitting $56 million this school year for building improvements, largely for roof repairs and other smaller projects.
But the bulk of the additional money was not specifically for the poor, rural districts that sued.
Spending without fixing the root problems only causes the achievement gaps to widen, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
And while legislators have tinkered with the antiquated education funding formulas that justices cited as a key problem, they're just now launching an effort to overhaul them.
Under a 40-year-old formula designed to provide for the minimum standards of that time — and which still provides a major chunk of state spending — the state is still hundreds of millions of dollars short. The Legislature hasn't fully funded that law, adjusted yearly for inflation, since the Great Recession.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, contends the state spends enough on K-12 education, more than $3.7 billion, just not in the right way.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Beatty, on the losing side of the latest 3-2 ruling, wrote in his dissent that he's encouraged by legislators' recent realization that "merely pouring more money into an outmoded system will not lead to success." And he hopes the panel White created results in the fundamental reforms needed to provide students their constitutionally required opportunities.
But Beatty believed continued oversight was needed to ensure that happens. Even before the case's dismissal, White didn't expect the Legislature to pass a funding revamp until 2020.
A national trend winds down
School funding lawsuits like the case known as Abbeville v. South Carolina — named for the first of 40 alphabetically listed districts that initially sued in 1993 — have been playing out in states nationwide since the 1970s. According to the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University, which has tracked those cases, 27 resulted in victories for schools, while 21 resulted in wins for the states. It lists South Carolina's outcome a win for schools.
Each state’s court battle is unique. In October, Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback railed against a ruling by that state's Supreme Court that found the state's adequacy and equity of school funding unconstitutional.
In Washington state, the state Supreme Court has been holding lawmakers in contempt since 2014 for failing to comply with a school finance ruling.
The cases are rarely open-and-shut, even in states like California, where a school-funding case ended in April 2016 with an appeals court ruling 2-1 that the state constitution guarantees access to education, but not necessarily to a “quality” education.
“There have been ebbs and flows in courts’ willingness to get involved and to challenge legislatures and executive branches around educational finance,” said Stanford University Professor Bill Koski, who represented the California districts. “Honestly, I think in the last few years we have seen newfound wariness on the part of courts to get involved with educational funding.”
In South Carolina, while justices sided with rural districts in 2014, they also scolded them for putting a priority on athletics and spending too much on administrative costs. Justices asked both sides to work together to find solutions and to consider consolidating some districts.
“Athletic facilities and other auxiliary initiatives received increased attention and funding, while students suffered in crumbling schools and toxic academic environments,” then-Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in the majority opinion.
"Plaintiff districts must examine their own important role in advancing reform and placing students at the forefront."
Educators were part of a study panel House Speaker Jay Lucas created in 2015, which resulted in eight bills. Of the four that became law, two called for more study. A third defined the expectations of a high school graduate. The fourth rebuilt a support system for struggling districts that was originally created by a 1998 law but that had been dismantled.
In 2016, after the districts' attorneys criticized the plan legislators submitted to the court as not a plan at all, justices required both sides to turn in progress reports.
In their June report, some districts noted they had teamed up with neighboring districts for cost-sharing initiatives. Hampton, Jasper, Laurens and Lexington counties have begun sharing adult educational programs. Dillon District 3 shares staff development, vocational programs, grant writing, college dual-credit courses and other programs with surrounding districts.
Educators in counties with multiple districts reported exploring consolidation. Districts in Marion and Dillon counties have already merged. Others, including in Florence, Bamberg, Barnwell and Clarendon counties, are discussing the possibility. Obstacles include transportation concerns and "hostility among the community against consolidation," they reported.
High teacher turnover has long plagued the rural districts, which often pay thousands less than their more prosperous neighbors. Their inability to hire and retain high-quality teachers was a major problem cited by justices.
The districts reported their low local tax base makes it difficult to fund radical change, but some reported providing housing or housing assistance to teachers, giving signing and performance bonuses, and recruiting through alternative programs such as foreign teacher exchanges and Teach for America.
The latest Senate study panel is focusing on how to address a growing teacher shortage exacerbated in the rural districts.
Michael Brenan, the state president of BB&T and a S.C. Board of Education member, said he thinks teachers need a major boost in pay — not just above the Southeastern average, as has been legislators' goal, but above the national average.
But he's doubtful the Legislature will fund that.
What are businesses doing?
Business leaders such as Brenan say education reform is crucial for preparing students to work in today's more technical jobs and to ensure South Carolina's economy remains strong.
And they're not waiting on the Legislature.
"There's going to be an issue of, will we have the workers" to fill the jobs, Brenan said.
Transform SC, an initiative of the Council on Competitiveness, was launched in 2013 as a way to foster innovation and provide educators the expertise. Four years later, more than 60 schools statewide are participating.
The initiative is not about money. It's about providing a network and know-how that helps schools try innovative solutions, which has included reshuffling money to fund 3-year-old kindergarten and linking students with local business owners for real-world projects, Transform SC Director Peggy Torrey said.
The state Manufacturing Alliance has been working with schools to erase stigmas and get students — and their parents — interested in high-paying manufacturing and technology jobs that may not need a four-year degree but do require increasingly more skills. It's developing a database that helps connect students to colleges and jobs.
"Their eyes pop out of their heads when they realize what those jobs pay," said its former longtime director, Louis Gossett.
Gossett said he agreed with GOP leaders that the courts shouldn't tell the Legislature what to do, and he's optimistic the lawsuit's end will actually spur more legislative action.
"The court aspect of it needed to go away. The challenge doesn't," he said, noting many manufacturers are moving into rural districts. As jobs get "more and more complicated, and skills increase even more, we're going to have to have a strong education system."