|Wary justices confront school funding|
Don’t ask court to do Legislature’s job, Toal warns
Does state government have a constitutional obligation to provide extra academic aid to students living in poverty to ensure they receive the same “minimally adequate” education as peers in wealthier communities?
The question now rests with the S.C. Supreme Court, which spent Wednesday afternoon sorting through the perplexing issue of school funding, how much is fair and what role, if any, the five justices have in making such decisions.
The court has no deadline to make a ruling.
A lawyer for 36 rural school systems had barely launched into arguments insisting her clients deserve better, if not special, treatment by the Legislature when Chief Justice Jean Toal set the tone for a spirited hearing that lasted just less than two hours.
“You’re asking us to do what we said we wouldn’t do” nine years ago, Toal said, and that was assume the role of a “super-Legislature.”
“You’re asking us to give (lawmakers) a blueprint as to what they need to do to reform education.”
Other justices expressed similar reservations, among them Don Beatty.
“I’m disappointed this case is even before us,” Beatty said. “It’s a touchy subject. No one wants to deal with it.”
Beatty, the court’s lone African-American, described the issue as a “tar baby,” a reference to a tar-and-turpentine doll used to entrap a character in an “Uncle Remus” children’s story often cited as having racial overtones. Efforts to reach Beatty for comment after the hearing were unsuccessful.
Beatty, Toal and the other justices pressed Laura Hart to provide them with specific reasons why they should tell the Legislature how to dole out money to local districts.
Hart, one of three attorneys who fought to get districts with high rates of poverty more money for teacher pay, smaller classes and new buildings, repeatedly described students as among the state’s most isolated and disadvantaged by circumstances they cannot control.
“South Carolina’s poorest children don’t receive a constitutional opportunity to be educated” the way the education clause of the state Constitution says they should, Hart said. Her clients, she said, “deserve a chance in life to be productive citizens.”
Hart said the state has a responsibility to assess the needs of her clients, to look at how to address them and then judge results.
Bobby Stepp, who has defended the Legislature since 1999, when the high court first reviewed the school funding question on appeal, said the justices got it right the first time. They interpreted the state’s chief responsibility then as providing each child an “opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education,” Stepp said.
“There’s no question poverty impacts achievement,” he said. “We think they all had an opportunity to achieve a minimally adequate education. Some took advantage of it. Some didn’t.”
Unlike most of the days that the lawsuit was argued in circuit court four years ago, Wednesday’s arguments attracted a standing-room-only crowd to the courthouse across the street from the State House. Court personnel set up two dozen chairs in the lobby, where spectators could watch proceedings via closed-circuit television. One bailiff called the extra seating arrangements rare.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, made a brief appearance, but left before the hearing ended. It also attracted an expert witness for the defense, Vanderbilt University professor James W. Guthrie, who flew in from Nashville to hear the arguments in person.
The long-running dispute over how South Carolina funds its public schools has attracted national attention lately, including from presidential candidates who appeared in communities where schools are parties to the lawsuit.
The plaintiff districts argued that small, rural communities have more difficulty getting students to meet minimum academic goals. Their attorneys claimed the state has shirked its responsibility to underwrite more intensive instruction those children need to succeed.
Stepp countered that “the General Assembly has to create a system (of education) that takes all kinds of students into account.” He said the fact that some children in the plaintiff districts pass rigorous, end-of-year tests proves the schools are doing a good job of providing a quality education.
The case on appeal before the Supreme Court included a strongly worded recommendation from retired Circuit Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. that the state should do more to prepare preschool-age children in poor communities for elementary school.
Cooper heard the case in 2003 and 2004 and ruled in 2005 that the state was doing what it needed to do, but also needed to address children’s readiness to begin school.
The Legislature immediately set aside money for 4-year-old kindergarten classes, which several justices noted as they grilled attorneys on both sides.
Cooper also wrote that the plaintiffs failed to persuade him that the conditions of their school buildings are substandard.
“I’ve seen some of these facilities with my own eyes,” Beatty said, “and I’m ashamed of them.”
Emory Smith, who represented Gov. Mark Sanford and urged the court to uphold Cooper’s ruling, struggled to answer Toal, who pressed him about whether Sanford drafted budget recommendations in support of pre-school programs.
Stepp said he doesn’t believe the Legislature sees its responsibility as creating an education system that reaches “down to pre-natal care.”
Steve Morrison, another attorney for the school systems, challenged the justices to “affirm the lower court finding that (all of our) kids are not receiving a minimally adequate education. That’s the least you can do.”
Toal repeatedly tried to strike a balance between the court’s role in interpreting the state Constitution and the reality that the state has “lots of poverty,” which she called an “intractable social problem.”“I understand that argument in my heart — all South Carolinians do,” Toal said.
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