|School case heads back to high court|
By Bill Robinson, The State newspaper
The S.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday 6-25 will consider for a second time whether the state’s rural communities inherently deserve more money to underwrite public schools.
The case — pitting 36 of South Carolina’s poorest school systems against the state Legislature — has thrust the term “minimally adequate education” into the national spotlight, attracting interest from education advocates and presidential candidates alike.
Yet that attention, along with millions in legal fees and 15 years in state courts, has not resolved the issue.
Lawyers representing plaintiff districts want the high court to tell the Legislature that schools in poor, rural areas need more state help to put students on the same academic footing as peers in wealthier districts.
The Supreme Court initially ruled in April 1999 that the state government’s money distribution policy — based on such factors as enrollment, a student’s age and academic prowess — treats school districts fairly.
Oral arguments this week will focus on what was left unresolved from that ruling: whether the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility of providing all children access to a minimally adequate education.
“It’s a terrible term to use,” said superintendent Steve Laird cq of Dillon 1, one of the plaintiff districts. “I don’t think we would accept a minimally adequate health care system. We ought to be shooting for something better than that.”
Columbia attorney Bobby Stepp cq, who has defended the state since the high court’s first ruling, acknowledged: “It is time to answer the question whether students in South Carolina have the opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education once and for all.”
“There is no disagreement between the parties about the importance of education,” Stepp said, “but education policy should be made in the General Assembly by elected representatives of the people.”
NOT FAIR ENOUGH?
Laird was superintendent of Lake View schools for only two years when his small district and others in eastern South Carolina first sued state government in 1993 cq.
They were frustrated about paying a larger proportion of employee pension benefits, which diverted local money from property taxes used to pay for instruction.
The case evolved into a debate over whether the Legislature’s formula for doling out money to public schools was equitable, given the challenges the plaintiff districts must overcome in educating students living in poverty.
The 1999 Supreme Court decision led to a protracted 16-month trial about the meaning of minimally adequate education.
Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr., now retired, concluded in December 2005 that the state does enough to support local public schools and their upkeep. But he also suggested state policymakers should consider spending money to help preschool-age children be better prepared for kindergarten.
Both sides claimed a partial victory — which led to this week’s appeal.
Taxpayers have paid an estimated $6.7 million in legal fees, while the plaintiffs’ attorneys estimate their donated time is worth another $7.73 million.
Since Cooper’s 2005 ruling, lawmakers have since taken two steps to change how they fund public schools.
The state now provides money to underwrite full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds in the plaintiff districts. And the Legislature raised the state sales tax by a penny to replace annual property tax revenue from owner-occupied homes, which are now exempt from that levy.
Carl Epps cq, who took on the plaintiffs’ case in 1993, was encouraged the Legislature created pre-school programs for children in poor, rural communities.
Nevertheless, Epps said, “Our children, the state’s neediest, are not receiving that opportunity (to receive a minimally adequate education) because our state does not fund teachers, infrastructure and instruction sufficient to reach them.”
Cooper’s ruling, Epps said, “rightfully protected the youngest of these vulnerable children. But we respectfully believe (he) was wrong in stopping there.”
Laird said last week that neighboring Horry County lured away two of his special-education teachers with a boost in pay and bonuses he was told are worth between $15,000 and $20,000.
“How can we compete with that?” he asked.
The Legislature approved a new budget with about $3 billion in state money for K-12 education. Throw in another $700 million in federal aid, and that’s a $3.7 billion enterprise for the 2008-09 academic year — more than double the $1.8 billion being spent on public schools in 1993.
While some schools in the plaintiff districts have gotten special funding to address specific issues over the years, those school systems by and large have not benefited from larger state education budgets.
TRACKING THE CASE
South Carolina is among two dozen or more states where courts have been asked to referee disputes about how public schools are funded.
Among those watching this week’s South Carolina proceedings will be attorney Michael Rebell cq, director of the ACCESS Network, which tracks school finance disputes around the nation.
“We consider it a really important case because the judge there concentrated on what the poor kids in rural districts need for them to have any realistic chance to get an education,” Rebell said.
“How can you say these kids who come from impoverished rural areas have any chance of getting a competitive education and enter the job market?” Rebell said. “School is the main place you get that opportunity.”
Last week, state Superintendent Jim Rex called on educators to lobby for wholesale changes in the way the state underwrites its public schools.
“Our K-12 funding system is part of a statewide tax structure that’s in desperate need of comprehensive repair,” Rex said. “Rather than fixing it, we’ve tinkered with piecemeal changes that make the system more complex, more unbalanced and less understandable.”
Reacting to Rex’s speech, the S.C. Policy Council, a nonpartisan think tank that monitors public education, said, “It is clearly time for reform in the (state’s) K-12 school system.
“Instead of giving money to local school districts through a range of different formulas and programmatic allotments, South Carolina should adopt a single and universal formula for K-12 spending,” the organization said.
Rex does not expect the Supreme Court to hand down a dramatic decision.
“The answer is not going to come from the judiciary,” he said. “It will take systemic change to fix some of the problems we have, and that’s going to have to come from the policymakers.”
Hayes Mizell cq, a Columbia-based education consultant who has followed the lawsuit, shares Rex’s skepticism that the plaintiffs will get the remedy they are seeking.
“Until the state remedies the funding and education inequities that plague low-wealth school districts, South Carolina will continue to limp along, never fully developing nor benefiting from the intellect and talents of all its people,” Mizell said.
Call Robinson at (803) 771-8482.
WHAT IS MINIMALLY ADEQUATE?
Here are the 66 words from an April 1999 state Supreme Court ruling that has kept the school funding lawsuit alive since it was first filed in 1993.
“We define this minimally adequate education required by our Constitution to include providing students adequate and safe facilities in which they have the opportunity to acquire:
1) the ability to read, write and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science;
2) a fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and
3) academic and vocational skills.”
Source: April 22, 1999, S.C. Supreme Court opinion
TIMELINE: STILL PENDING
Key dates in the case of Abbeville County School District (et al) v. The State of South Carolina.
Nov. 2, 1993: Attorneys representing 29* S.C. school districts file a lawsuit against the state in circuit court in Lee County, claiming the 1977 formula the Legislature uses to distribute money for education is unfair to rural and poor schools.
Feb. 17, 1994: The petition for the state Supreme Court to accept original jurisdiction in the case is granted, removing it from the 3rd Circuit Court.
June 8, 1994: The state Supreme Court remands the case back to Lee County.
July 3, 1995: The parties argue the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit (for failure to state a cause of action) before Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr.
Sept. 20, 1996: Cooper grants the state’s motion to dismiss. An appeal returning the case to the state Supreme Court was taken from that ruling.
Oct. 9, 1997: The state Supreme Court hears the school districts’ appeal.
April 22, 1999: The state Supreme Court rules the education clause in South Carolina’s constitution “requires the General Assembly to provide the opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate (public) education.” It also clears the way for the case to be returned to the circuit court and Cooper.
May 20, 1999: The General Assembly approves a plan to infuse $750 million into construction of public schools. The money was distributed to every district according to a complex formula tied to enrollment.
July 28, 2003: Attorneys for the plaintiff districts and the Legislature square off in Clarendon County, where they begin arguing what constitutes a “minimally adequate education” in the 21st century.
Nov. 29, 2004: The last witness testifies.
Dec. 9, 2004: Attorneys present closing arguments.
Dec. 29, 2005: Cooper issues his ruling on the “minimally adequate” argument; he finds for the defense but also points out shortcomings in early childhood education that need to be remedied.
April 3, 2006: Attorneys for both sides in the dispute formally ask Cooper to reconsider his December 2005 ruling.
May 31, 2006: The General Assembly agrees to provide $23.6 million to pay for full-day kindergarten for 4-year-old children in the districts that mounted the lawsuit.
July 12, 2007: Cooper issues a decision saying he stands behind his December 2005 ruling.
Sept. 6, 2007: Cooper’s ruling is appealed to the state Supreme Court.
* Editor’s note: After the initial lawsuit was filed, 11 more districts signed on, boosting the number to 40. Some of the original plaintiff districts subsequently consolidated, reducing to 36 the number that are still parties to the suit. After the April 1999 ruling by state Supreme Court, Allendale, Dillon 2, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3 became the featured plaintiffs in the “minimally adequate” case argued before Cooper.
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