The state Supreme Court on Tuesday considered whether or not South Carolina’s elected leaders are doing enough for children in poor, rural school districts. Justices spent 90 minutes listening to arguments in a lawsuit filed by eight school districts against the governor and the General Assembly.
As they heard both sides argue the case Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, the justices seemed to agree that some school districts were failing to properly teach their students, but questioned whether the court has the authority to force lawmakers to make changes.
They focused their questions Tuesday largely on what actions the court could legally take without creating a separation of powers issue. “Just because the legislature doesn’t have the political will to do it, what gives us the authority to act?” Chief Justice Jean Toal asked lawyers representing the school districts.
Attorney Carl Epps was reluctant to get into specifics, but said that the court could order lawmakers to take steps to improve opportunities for children in struggling districts. He pointed to a decision by the Washington State Supreme Court earlier this year in which that court ordered lawmakers to fix their education funding formula.
However, Tuesday’s arguments largely avoided the issue of money. Instead, districts’ attorneys focused on the problems plaguing rural districts— low-paid, unqualified teachers, large administrative budgets, and deteriorating facilities. Epps said all combined to create an environment that was unsuitable for learning.
“If we don’t take steps to educate these children, we know what the outcome is going to be,” he said. “These children are doomed.”
In a 1999 ruling that dealt with the Abbeville suit, the state Supreme Court clarified that South Carolina’s constitution requires the state to provide a “”minimally adequate” level of education. In 2005, a circuit court judge ruled South Carolina was providing enough to reach that threshold, with the exception of preschool education. The districts appealed and the Supreme Court heard the case in 2008, but did not render a decision.
Attorney Bobby Stepp, who represents the state, says it has gone beyond the “very low bar” set by the court. He argued the chronic problems are due to high generational poverty and mismanagement at the district level. “The question needs to be: is this a problem that can be fixed by the legislature?” he asked.
He pointed out that the districts were complaining about the quality of teachers, which he said is handled at the local level. “Whose job is it to make sure these teachers teach? Should the General Assembly pass a law requiring that?”
Toal’s questions seemed to indicate that she believed the small size of the districts involved in the suit was a factor in their struggles. She noted that their small size meant they had higher-than-average administrative cost per student.
But another attorney representing the districts, Steve Morrison, blamed their size on state lawmakers. School districts must get state approval to merge or be created, he said. “The state has systematically created small, rural ghetto districts where students cannot succeed,” Morrison told the justices. He blamed a lack of state support for teacher pay, transportation, and capital projects for making the problem worse.
The court now has several steps it can take. It can declare that lawmakers are violating the state constitution by not providing a “minimally adequate” level of education, then order lawmakers to come up with solutions. Or it could uphold the lower court’s decision and rule the state must do more for preschool funding. Or it could side with the state and overrule the lower court judge on preschool funding. It could also declare the case moot due to the amount of time elapsed since the case was first filed.