The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that state lawmakers are not doing enough to help rural school districts overcome the challenges they face, in a decision that could help resolve a 21-year-old education funding lawsuit.
In a divided 3-2 ruling, the justices ruled the state was not meeting its constitutional obligations to educate children. It ordered state lawmakers to work with the eight rural school districts named in the lawsuit to identify the problems facing students in those districts and design a strategy to address them. “(T)he winner here is not the Plaintiff Districts, but fittingly, the students in those districts and throughout the State,” Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote for the majority.
The ongoing case Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina was first filed in 1993, well before current high school seniors were even born. A 1999 ruling by the state Supreme Court required the state to meet a “minimally adequate” education standard. The districts then argued that state lawmakers were not meeting that threshold, a claim with which the court agreed. The state’s high court re-heard arguments on the case in 2012.
In her opinion, Toal said test scores and school grades have remained stagnant in the affected districts since the court set its “minimally adequate” standard (with the exception of graduation rates, which she noted have improved). The districts also struggle with a lack of funding that lead to deteriorating buildings, inadequate transportation, and significantly underpaid and under-qualified teachers, the majority noted.
“Students in these districts are grouped by economic class into what amounts to no more than educational ghettos,” Toal wrote.
The justices did not give any solutions or a deadline for this strategy to be crafted. “This Court cannot suggest methods of fixing the problem, but we can recognize a constitutional violation when we see one,” Toal wrote. However, the justices did write that current early childhood education programs are not funded enough to meet student needs.
Democratic legislators hoped the ruling would force lawmakers to address the struggles of rural education in South Carolina. “It does not come up with an absolutely clear solution like I hoped it would do,” State Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, told South Carolina Radio Network. “But, as far as I’m concerned, it does vindicate the issues that were brought up in the suit.”
But two Supreme Court justices strongly disagreed with the ruling, saying their colleagues were effectively acting as legislators instead of judges by pushing for increased funding. “Courts should not interpret the constitution in a manner that creates rights and duties out of thin air, such that one’s policy preference is accorded constitutional status,” wrote Justice John Kittredge. Both Kittredge and fellow justice Costa Pleicones insisted that funding was not the main issue — noting that all of the districts now receive significantly more money than they did in 1993 and that five of the eight districts are among the highest in per-pupil funding given by the state. Kittredge maintained that poverty appears to be the largest factor for student and school performance.
The court’s ruling was also a slight reprimand to those districts which filed the initial lawsuit, noting that they too shared in the blame. “Time and again in the Plaintiff Districts, priorities have been skewed toward popular programs,” Toal wrote. “Athletic facilities and other auxiliary initiatives received increased attention and funding, while students suffered in crumbling schools and toxic academic environments. Additionally, the Plaintiff Districts’ administrative costs divert funds from the classroom.” She also added that smaller districts should consider combining to save on administrative costs.
While 29 districts were involved in the original suit (including Abbeville County), only Allendale, Dillon 4, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3 remained in the suit two decades later. “This has been a very long and difficult battle,” the districts’ lead attorney Carl Epps said. “From the standpoint of the children in our districts, we could not be more grateful.”