No excuses: Fix rural schools

South Carolina Senate Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman says the S.C. Supreme Court decision regarding poor, rural school districts is unconstitutional. (AP Photo)

The General Assembly seems to have two choices: It can complain about an order of the S.C. Supreme Court, or it can try to improve the inadequate schools in rural South Carolina.

Too bad the Legislature’s leadership has opted to complain, as yet another class of rural students spends the year in schools that are inadequate in the eyes of the court — and people throughout the state.

Oddly, Sen. President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, did not take advantage of legal grievance procedures in an effort to amend or modify the order.

Of course, ignoring the court is easier. After all, the Legislature has neglected the rural schools problem for decades.

South Carolina’s high court took an inordinately long time — 22 years — to find that the state has failed in its duty to provide a “minimally adequate” education to children in the its poorest school districts.

In November of 2014 the justices instructed the Legislature to work with the school districts that had sued the state to develop a plan in a reasonable amount of time to address the inadequacies.

The court later said a panel of experts should be established by Oct. 15 of this year to review the plan and report on it to the court. The plan itself is due on Feb. 1, 2016 — a full 14 months from the finding.

Still, Speaker Lucas called the deadlines “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.” He even told Carl Epps, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs and certainly someone whose perspective and knowledge would be helpful to the committee, that he must withdraw the request for a deadline or forfeit his seat on the task force.

Given the foot-dragging that lawmakers have exhibited so far, it’s a good guess that without deadlines they would have continued to put off finding a comprehensive solution to the rural schools problem.

It really shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to spark legislators’ concerns about failing schools in the poorest parts of the state. Without adequate educations, the residents of those counties face tough odds for getting good jobs.

And without adequately trained workers, those counties face tough odds for attracting business and industry and the jobs they provide.

This governor and the Legislature have stressed “jobs, jobs, jobs” — and this is no way to bring them to our state.

Gov. Nikki Haley has shown an interest in helping those poor, rural districts by offering incentives for teachers who take jobs in them, expanding the reading coach program and providing modern technology.

But there is much more to do, and the General Assembly must be part of that overdue process.

If voters question their elected representatives’ commitment to public education, the legislative leadership’s response in this Supreme Court case offers disturbing answers.

It’s time for lawmakers to stop looking for excuses and start looking for solutions to the long-standing — and devastating — problem of inadequate rural schools.