Don’t hold your breath expecting the state to fix our schools by February. After decades of living with a broken education system, change doesn’t come that easily — or quickly.
Last week, the state Supreme Court ordered the governor and the Legislature to come up with a plan to provide quality education to rural and low-income school districts by February.
The order came from a 22-year-old lawsuit filed by some school districts that claim the state does not provide a “minimally adequate education.” That’s a nebulous benchmark, if there ever was one.
But based on statewide test scores, some districts aren’t hitting that mark by any stretch of the imagination.
And honestly, is “minimally adequate” — whatever that means — really a goal to strive for? Shouldn’t we aim higher?
Still, lawmakers got their back up, said they have been working on the problem. They called the February deadline unrealistic, however, and claimed the court didn’t understand the way the Legislature works.
They accused the state Supreme Court of playing politics.
Actually, the court has a pretty good idea of how South Carolina works. Chief Justice Jean Toal was a state lawmaker before most members of the current General Assembly were old enough to vote.
In her experience, she surely knows that nothing gets done at the Statehouse unless lawmakers are working under a very tight deadline.
And even then, it often doesn’t make a difference.
House Speaker Jay Lucas makes a valid point: Any meaningful change in school funding comes as part of the budget process — which is nowhere near finished by February.
It’s also true the House has had a committee looking into this problem for the past year, taking testimony from experts, kicking around ideas.
And granted, there is no single magic bullet here. Some of the problems in South Carolina schools cannot be fixed simply by throwing more money at the districts.
But there are some things the state does know, and can do something about.
Some of the Legislature’s early education proponents say there are a couple of things that have to be part of whatever fix the state makes. For example, the fix must make a real effort at being equitable and really targeting low-income areas.
That doesn’t mean just poor counties. Areas of Charleston County afflicted by high rates of poverty often have schools that perform below average.
Of course, beefing up early education and propping up the less prosperous and rural areas of the state costs money. And that’s where the trouble starts.
That’s where the trouble has always been.
This is not a new problem, and it wasn’t 22 years ago when this legal battle began.
Education funding has been a contentious issue in South Carolina for half a century at least.
Even when rural lawmakers dominated the General Assembly, those schools did not get enough support. None of them did.
Today, there are some folks at the Statehouse who want nothing more than to improve education. Some of them have been making legitimate efforts for years. It’s just hard to get the votes to make big changes.
The Legislature has painted itself into a corner, drawing districts for itself that ensure a maximum amount of partisanship and ideological battles — much like Congress.
That means there are some people who, even if they know it needs to be done, simply will not cast a vote for anything that costs the state a dime. They’d lose their jobs come next election.
This makes it hard to get a majority vote on much of anything meaningful. It’s just politics. We have created a system that eschews compromise, which is what we need in this education debate.
So a lot of people expect the Legislature will continue to kick and scream, hold its regular education task force meetings, and run out the clock on this order.
See, Toal — who led the majority in the court’s 3-2 decision — retires at the end of the year and will be replaced as chief justice by Justice Costa Pleicones.
Pleicones was one of those two dissenting votes, and will soon wield much more power. And you know who will fill that vacancy on the Supreme Court?
In other words, this may come down to a choice between finding solutions that have eluded the state for decades, making monumentally tough decisions and tackling the state’s biggest problem — or simply electing a justice who might make for a more lenient, understanding and forgiving state Supreme Court.
And sadly, that’s not much of a choice at all for some lawmakers.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com