Justices won’t reconsider education ruling

The state Supreme Court has rejected a request to rehear a landmark ruling in a 21-year-old case that faulted the Legislature and school districts for failing to provide a basic education for students in South Carolina’s impoverished rural areas.

In a letter dated last Friday, three of the five justices — including Chief Justice Jean Toal — cited an inability “to discover that any material fact or principle of law has been either overlooked or disregarded,” leaving no basis for granting a rehearing.

Carl Epps, the attorney representing the school districts that sued the state in November 1993, said the court’s rejection was not unexpected. After 21 years of litigating the case, there was nothing new to be argued, he said.

“We need to move along with the urgency of now, as they say,” Epps said. “It needs to be a deliberate process. It doesn’t need to be slowed down unnecessarily. If we can do things now, we need to do them — and expeditiously.”

The November ruling instructed the Legislature to improve education in rural districts, and criticized the state for not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide basic education in those districts. The scathing ruling called on the Legislature and the districts to produce a plan “within a reasonable time.”

In late December, South Carolina’s top leaders asked the Supreme Court to rehear the case. The legislature claimed the ruling was ambiguous, and argued the court had overstepped its authority by telling policymakers what to do.

Gov. Nikki Haley argued the Supreme Court failed to consider recent action directing more funding and resources to the state’s rural, impoverished schools.

Despite the appeal, Gov. Nikki Haley proposed in her executive budget a teaching initiative that would help recruit teachers to rural districts. On Monday, Haley’s spokeswoman, Chaney Adams, touted the proposal, adding Haley’s office would continue to transform education because South Carolina’s student’s “deserve nothing less.”

Meanwhile, the General Assembly had also moved forward with creating task forces that would look into how to improve education in the state’s rural districts.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, created a special committee co-chaired by Sens. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, and Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia. Leatherman said the panel would rush to work, but he didn’t expect a quick solution; the Supreme Court did take 21 years to make the decision after all, he added.

“I don’t think this will be a short-term thing,” Leatherman said. “It’s very complicated. Basically we want to do what’s best for educating our young people.”

Hayes said the committee’s first step will likely include bringing in an attorney who is familiar with the case to brief the panel with what the court meant in its ruling and what the state has to do.

“That’s going to be one of the big challenges: trying to figure out how to get it resolved,” Hayes said. “Any action we take is going to be thorough to get through (the Legislature).”

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, also created a task force, which includes lawmakers, business leaders and educators. He announced last week the panel will spend the next year evaluating possible reforms before presenting recommendations in January 2016.

On Monday, Lucas said the court’s decision further confirmed the need for comprehensive education reform.

“In light of the court’s decision to deny a rehearing, I am hopeful that the House Education Task Force will immediately begin its work to develop a robust strategy that ensures every child is given access to the best possible education in every part of our state,” Lucas said. “These five representatives from the Abbeville v. State case will provide significant insight and help create standards that put our state back on a path towards excellence.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.