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Home arrow Media Center arrow Drive seeks to alter S.C. constitution
Drive seeks to alter S.C. constitution

Group wants more than minimum for schools

By Diette Courrégé, The Post and Courier
July 14, 2008

South Carolina's public education system has its share of problems. It ranks among the worst in the country by a number of measures, and the decrepit condition of its poor, rural schools along Interstate 95 led some to dub the area the "Corridor of Shame."

The quality of Palmetto State schools has implications for its economy and citizens' welfare, and some say the place to start addressing this issue is by making a fundamental change to the state constitution, specifically to change the educational standard interpreted as "minimally adequate" to "high quality."

But others say that making such a change would open the state to lawsuits about the amount of money it spends on education, and that it would give the courts authority to order the Legislature to tax the public. They say that's unacceptable.

It's a debate about the state's education system and whether the Legislature is providing enough money for it. It's a discussion about the priority that South Carolinians are willing to put on education and back up with their tax dollars.

The stimulus for this conversation is a petition that supports changing the state constitution from requiring that the state provide a free public education system to mandating that it offer a "high quality education, allowing each student to reach his highest potential." The goal for the group behind this campaign is to get one million South Carolinians' signatures to push lawmakers to support the amendment.

Two-thirds of the state Senate and House would have to vote in favor of the changes, and the public would have to give its approval. Organizers hope a public vote will happen in November 2010.

Some, such as Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, say they wouldn't support the amendment. He said he has no problem with making the state's goal to give children an education to the highest potential, but he has a problem putting such wording in the constitution because of problems it would create.

"It would be an erosion of our representative system of only those elected by the public being able to impose taxes on the public," he said.

Someone could sue the state and say it's not providing a high quality education, McConnell said. If the courts agreed with the plaintiff, judges could order the Legislature to provide more money to schools, he said.

Judges don't have information about competing interests facing the state, such as health care, law enforcement and higher education, and theirs would be a tunnel-vision decision on one issue, he said. Lawmakers are accountable to the public every election, and this is an attempt to get through the courts what's not gotten through the Legislature, he said.

"I'm not going to fall for that bait," he said. "It's a Trojan horse. You can't spend something you don't have, and the public does not want general tax increases."

The state already has been in court fighting a lawsuit filed by 36 districts that challenges the money provided by the General Assembly for education. The state Supreme Court has interpreted the constitution to mean the state must provide children access to at least a "minimally adequate" education, and some districts contend the state has not done that. The state Supreme Court heard the case two weeks ago and is expected to make a decision this fall.

Nationally, lawsuits challenging state funding for public schools have been filed in 45 states, according to the National Access Network. States vary in the language used to describe the obligation to provide education, according to a 2002 survey by the Education Commission of the States. Some states, such as Florida, Illinois and Virginia, require the state to provide a "high quality" system, according to the survey. Many others, such as Maine, Michigan and Mississippi, simply mandate the state provide free public schools.

Bud Ferillo, an organizer of this petition and director of the "Corridor of Shame" documentary, said the amendment would set the highest standard possible for South Carolina's education system. If the state meets its responsibility for the higher standard, lawsuits will not be necessary, he said. The issue is raising the bar for schools' performance, and the state constitution is the best way to do it, he said.

"Minimally adequate is no way to run any public service, especially the most important," Ferillo said. "We've already had 15 years of litigation under minimally adequate. ... Students are going to need an excellent education system to free us from the poverty and lack of success that we have been plagued with for over a century."

McConnell said he didn't think one million people would sign the petition if they understood it would give the courts the authority to raise taxes.

He didn't think the people of his voting district would support that, and he said he wished the state's standard simply would be to provide the opportunity for public education instead of "minimally adequate."

State Education Superintendent Jim Rex said surveys have shown a majority of South Carolina residents want more resources and emphasis on education and are "way ahead" of policymakers. They see the effects of good education, and the question is whether they can influence lawmakers, he said.

"I just hate to see us not making the investment that's going to have a remarkable payoff," he said.

Although it's a somewhat symbolic change, the phrase "minimally adequate" sends a message of low expectations and that needs to change, Rex said. Other aspects of the state's system also have to improve, but this change can be the catalyst and reminder of "why we're doing these things."

Juan-Carlos Foust, a rising senior at Academic Magnet High in Charleston County, recently signed the petition. He feels grateful to attend a high achieving school but feels discouraged with the standard of minimally adequate, he said. He questioned whether South Carolinians want minimally adequate education so they can live minimally adequate lives.

"One directly influences the other," he said. "That doesn't really make sense. ... I think people are willing and definitely interested in this happening."

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