The state Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers and school districts to revamp how rural schools are funded in South Carolina.
But those parties involved aren’t sure yet what change would look like or when it would happen.
The court ruled 3-2 Wednesday in favor of eight predominantly poor rural districts who had filed a lawsuit against the Governor’s Office and state legislators in 1993. Those districts were the last remaining entities out of 29 involved in the original lawsuit. The justices sided with the districts by finding South Carolina had not met the requirement to provide a “minimally adequate” education for students in their districts.
But the justices were specifically vague in potential solutions, beyond ordering both sides to come back before the court “within a reasonable time” after crafting a plan. The ruling did hint that the justices believed South Carolina was underfunding preschool and other early education programs.
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairs the K-12 education finance subcommittee in the Senate. The longtime senator said he had been expecting a decision from the court at some point, but said the state’s leadership would need to reach a consensus on what to do next.
“I think that it may involve spending more money,” he said. “It could involve cutting funding in some areas and reallocating it to something else. The court talked about a lot of money being spent in (school district) administration that could’ve been spent in the classroom.”
Democrats praised the ruling, saying it would prompt their Republican counterparts into action. “Now the court has said that the way we’re funding school districts, particularly rural students, is not what it should be,” State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said. “Every child in South Carolina should get a quality education regardless of where they live. That’s the big hurdle that we’ve got to deal with.” He added that any solution would need to address the lack of tax base that gives rural districts a disadvantage to their urban counterparts.
Meanwhile, State Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, a retired elementary school principal who testified in court on behalf of the districts, said he was somewhat disappointed by the lack of a deadline. “It does not come up with an absolutely clear solution like I hoped it would do,” he said. “But, as far as I’m concerned, it does vindicate the issues that were brought up in the suit.”
But it does appear that the court wants lawmakers to reform a pair of complicated funding formulas that state law requires in determining how much each district receives per student. Budget writers primarily rely on the Education Finance Act (which uses a base cost, then adjusts the amount depending on the number of pupils and how wealthy a tax base the district has) and the Education Improvement Act (which comes from a statewide sales tax and is distributed based on teachers’ salaries) when calculating what each district is to receive. But other formulas and measures are factored in, as well.
A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley said the Republican is committed to improving education every year, noting that she pushed to change how rural schools are funded in the current year’s budget. “Improving our public education system isn’t something that is done overnight, but an effort that must be addressed year after and year, and the governor is committed to doing so until her last day in office,” spokesman Doug Mayer told the Associated Press.
Sen. Hayes questioned where extra money would come from for rural schools, noting that K-12 education is already by far the largest expenditure in the state budget. “Basically, no other part of state government is treated as well as we’ve treated public education,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “That being said, I will acknowledge that South Carolina like every state in the nation has a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be.”
There was significant disagreement among the Supreme Court justices about whether funding is the correct approach. In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Kittredge noted that five of the eight districts which sued the state are among the highest in per-pupil funding from the state. Kittredge maintained that poverty appears to be the largest factor for student and school performance.