Most current high school seniors were not yet born when the case known as Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina was first filed in 1993.
Carroll Campbell was still governor. The state legislature was controlled by Democrats. And tuition at the University of South Carolina was a little over $3,000 for in-state students (it is now nearly $10,500).
On Tuesday, attorneys representing rural school districts in South Carolina will appear before the state’s Supreme Court for the latest hearing in a case that has been ongoing since then. Abbeville focuses on the issue of whether or not state leaders are adequately funding education.
Districts argue that the state is not fulfilling its responsibilities to deliver a “minimally adequate” education, using language from a 1999 Supreme Court ruling. While 29 districts were involved in the original suit (including Abbeville County), the focus now is on Allendale, Dillon 4, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3.
“I don’t think anybody expected the case to be around for almost 19 years,” said attorney Carl Epps, who has represented the districts since the original filing, ”We had hoped when we brought the case that the General Assembly would step up to the plate and fix the system. I don’t think they will do that without a court order”
However, legislative leaders insist they have addressed the funding needs of rural schools, pointing out that rural districts already receive more funding on a per-student basis than their urban counterparts. The biggest share in the 2011-2012 budget was McCormick County School District, which received $20,310 per pupil in state and federal funding. Most of the districts named in the lawsuit receive between $13,000 and $16,000 per pupil.
However, other lawmakers say the state’s four-decade-old funding formula is outdated and needs to be reformed. Epps points out that several of the districts named in the suit receive roughly the same amount on a per-student basis as the state’s wealthier districts. “The (rural) districts can’t raise the money to attract teachers, get instructional materials, and teach to the curriculum. They don’t have the tax base to do that.”
School districts also say that, since the recession began, the state has not maintained the funding levels required by law.
Attorneys in the Abbeville case spent the first ten years between 1993 and 2003 maneuvering through the courts to define what was “adequate” for South Carolina’s education system. In 2005, a state circuit judge finally ruled that the state was providing an adequate level, with the exception of preschool programs. The districts appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments in 2008, but never rendered a decision. In May, the justices told the two sides to argue the case again, but to address how funding has changed since the recession.
Each of the eight school districts named are along the I-95 Corridor— which is also known as the “Corridor of Shame” after a titular 2005 documentary which exposed serious problems in those schools.
Epps said he hopes a Supreme Court decision will settle the issue. “You have a large segment of children in South Carolina, particularly children from rural, poorer counties, who have never received the opportunity for an education.”