South Carolina’s highest court has released the legislature from any further requirement to provide better education for poor, rural school districts in the state, ending a 24-year lawsuit.
The state Supreme Court had ordered lawmakers in 2014 to show additional steps they were taking after the court ruled the state failed to meet a constitutional obligation to provide education in those districts. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit initially filed by dozens of school districts in 1993 (eventually known as the “Abbeville” case after the first district alphabetically). The court did not set a deadline for the legislature to act beyond a “reasonable” time.
In a 3-2 decision Monday, the court narrowly ruled legislators and the executive branch had made enough of an effort to meet the requirement so that any further court oversight would be a “gross overreach” and violate the constitution’s separation of powers.
“Understandably, the plaintiff school districts want this court to keep its thumb on the scale of legislative power, especially in the power of the purse. That, we will not countenance,” Justice John Kittredge wrote for the majority.
The House and Senate had appointed two new Supreme Court judges to replace retiring members since the 2014 ruling, both of whom sided with lawmakers on Monday.
Chief Justice Donald Beatty opposed the decision, saying he believed lawmakers, the governor and education officials needed to actually take steps to change laws and policy beyond proposing future changes and studies.
“Unfortunately, our Court has lost the will to do even the minimal amount necessary to avoid becoming complicit actors in the deprivation of a minimally adequate education to South Carolina’s children,” Beatty wrote.
House Speaker Jay Lucas praised the decision, saying it freed the legislature to focus on what it considered education priorities beyond the initial 2014 order it considered vague.
“Providing every child in every part of our state access to a 21st century education has and will continue to be a priority for the South Carolina House of Representatives,” Lucas said in a statement. “Although more legislative initiatives and updated funding formulas are part of the House’s plan for continued improvement, the General Assembly can now focus solely on our children’s education needs rather than compliance with the arbitrary standard set forth in the Abbeville lawsuit.”
Both the House and Senate created special committees this year to further study education issues and make recommendations. Gov. Henry McMaster has made visits to several of the districts involved in the lawsuit and plans to visit all eight by the end of the year before coming up with his own potential solutions.