DEC. 12, 2014 -- Despite a major S.C. Supreme Court ruling last month calling on the state to vastly improve education in poor, rural school districts, it may be two or three years before anything really gets done, a diverse group of leaders agree.
“Fundamentally, we respect the rule of law,” said Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. “While we may disagree with it [the ruling], we will attempt to respond to it.
“What track that is going to actually take is anybody’s guess. It’s not going to be done this year , I don’t believe. It will take a lot of work. It will take a lot of time and resources.”
Two big hurdles are still in the way before there’s resolution to the 21-year-old lawsuit, Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, brought by poor districts, most of which are in the South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame” along Interstate 95:
- Rehearing. The state Supreme Court has extended the time to receive any petitions for rehearing the case to December 30 following requests from state Republican leaders -- the president pro tempore of the Senate, speaker of the House and governor.
The General Assembly’s lawyer on the case, Robert E. Stepp of Columbia, said he expected to file a petition, which would try to get the court to reconsider its 3-2 decision. “I can’t comment at this time on the issues raised in the petition,” Stepp told Statehouse Report. “They will be publicly available once the petition is filed.”
Carl Epps, a lawyer leading the case on behalf of the districts, said he was disappointed there would be another delay in the case, first filed in 1993. “Until that motion is briefed and heard, the case is being delayed further.”
- Scope. Beyond any other court action on the case, the sheer size of the changes required to deal with the court’s decision will put off substantive, quick action to fix the system. A panoply of issues that have to be dealt with complicate change -- from revising the way schools are funded to whether to consolidate school districts.
Legislators still are trying to understand the complex decision, said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston.
“The court brought it to the forefront and basically ensured that we will be looking at it,” he said. “It’s a note from the teacher saying that school funding needs to be prioritized by the General Assembly,” adding that he thought the court overreached its judicial power in its ruling.
In 1993, several rural school districts complained their students received a constitutionally-inappropriate and inadequate public education due to a number of factors, most of which centered on funding. By 1999, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in an appeal that the state had a responsibility to provide a “minimum adequate education” and remanded the case to a lower court. Between July 2003 and December 2004, a circuit court held 102 days of trial and heard from 102 witnesses. The following year, a judge ruled the state provided a minimally-adequate education to students in the poor districts, but said more needed to be done to fund early childhood intervention programs. That decision was appealed, leading to oral arguments in 2008 and, following criticism for delays, later in 2012.
In November, the high court ruled the state needed to do more to right longtime inequities:
“Our state's education system fails to provide school districts with the resources necessary to meet the minimally-adequate standard. In addition, the cost of the educational package in South Carolina is based on a convergence of outmoded and outdated policy considerations that fail the students of the Plaintiff Districts. Though the evidence demonstrates the intersection of statutes and ever increasing funding streams, it does not show, at least to this Court, a comprehensive effort by the Defendants to determine the demands of providing the constitutionally mandated educational opportunity throughout the State. In our opinion, without that determination, it is near impossible for the Defendants to meet their constitutional obligation.” [p. 36]
The split decision called on the General Assembly and school districts to develop a solution and report back to the Supreme Court on its remedies. The court highlighted multiple challenges in poor, rural districts -- low performance, low achievement rates, inadequate transportation, teacher quality, a fractured school funding formula and the impact of poverty.
The court criticized both sides for ignoring the “possible adverse impact of local legislation and the creation of school districts burdened with administrative costs disproportionate to their size,” suggesting consideration of school district consolidation.
“The winner here is not the Plaintiff Districts, but fittingly, the students in those districts and throughout the state,” the court wrote. “Further, there is no loser. The substance of our finding today places before the parties a new opportunity, resting solidly on this court’s precedent, but leaning forward towards a conversation unencumbered by blame.”
The remedy, the court said, must be for both parties to work to design a strategy to fix things, although the state must take the lead.
Two issues loom large as the parties work to craft a policy solution to meet the court’s challenge: Funding and consolidation.
The state’s funding formula for schools is a complicated, bedeviling mess, most agree. And while poor school districts generally get more state educational aid than urban, richer districts, the tax bases in rural areas struggle to keep up with funding to pay good teachers to stay in the districts and provide courses on par with the variety at many urban schools.
It’s going to take a lot of soul-searching, researching and discussion to figure out how to fix school funding, Martin said, predicting a bipartisan, joint study commission to filter ideas and come up with a plan for the court.
“You will see attention given to it and you will hear it discussed as we have floor debates,” he said. “It’s something that will always be, if not front and center throughout the session, it will be in the background quite a bit.”
Epps said a team of policy experts was working to put together proposals to discuss with the state. But rather than focus first on funding, what’s needed is a focus on a system that gives children an opportunity to learn and a chance to live, he said. Then when the system for education is agreed upon, reformers should figure out how much it costs, he said.
State Rep. Rita Allison, the Spartanburg Republican who is new chair of the House Education and Public Works Committee, said lawmakers were still trying to get their arms around the decision, but agreed to first look at needs and problems to come up with solutions and then funding.
“We all need to work together to find out where the needs are and where the real problems are,” she said.
At first blush, consolidating the state’s 81 school districts would seem to be a good way to save on administrative costs and lead to more money in classrooms. But that might not be the best thing for students, according to Scott Price of the S.C. School Boards Association. Smaller districts might, for example, keep communities together and serve students better. Combining districts might lead to tax hikes to equalize teacher salaries, which could eliminate savings from reducing administrative costs.
“The best way for this to occur is to start at the local level,” he said. “That’s where you get buy in.”
A 2004 study by the Legislative Audit Council found that smaller school districts tended to have higher costs per pupil, but some didn’t have high costs. Also, recent consolidations didn’t provide conclusive evidence of big cost reductions. Furthermore, disadvantages of consolidation included disrupting communities and causing turmoil, as well as threatening strong social and cultural ties to local schools.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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