COLUMBIA — The Legislature must report back to the state Supreme Court next summer on its progress complying with the justices’ 2014 order to fix South Carolina’s education system.
While applauding legislators’ “studied and dedicated approach,” justices rejected GOP leaders’ request last month that the high court end its oversight on the 23-year-old case over adequate funding.
“We commend the defendants on their efforts and await, with anticipation, reports on further implementation of the findings and recommendations,” the justices wrote in Tuesday’s order. “On that note, we opt to continue to monitor the progress towards a constitutionally compliant education system.”
The high court’s latest order also requires rural school districts that initially sued in 1993 to detail their efforts.
Both reports are due by June 30, 2017 — more than a month after the scheduled end of the legislative session that starts in January.
In November 2014, justices ruled that poor, rural students lack educational opportunities and ordered legislators and educators to work together to fix the problem. The ruling cited issues including decrepit buildings, poor districts’ inability to attract and keep good teachers and inadequate busing that results in hours-long commutes for some students. It faulted state funding formulas, which date to 1977, as an outdated, fractured “scheme.”
But the ruling also scolded districts for putting a priority on athletics and spending too much on administrative costs. The 2014 order asked both sides to consider consolidating districts.
Justices later gave legislators a June 2016 deadline to submit a report.
That June 29 filing detailed several hundred million in additional state funding for K-12 schools statewide. Amounts directed to high-poverty districts include $17 million for technology upgrades and $9 million for teacher salary boosts. New laws passed this year include those asking college students what would entice them to teach in poor districts and defining the expectations of a high school graduate.
The districts’ attorneys criticized that report as an accounting of legislative meetings and list of budget items, not a plan. Educators sought a new deadline for a plan, while the Legislature’s GOP leaders asked the justices to withdraw altogether and leave the policy debate to them.
In Tuesday’s order, justices repeatedly pointed to the work of a House study committee, which included educators, and called the districts’ criticism “unnecessary and unfounded.”
Carl Epps, an attorney for the districts, said his clients are pleased with the court’s latest order.
“While the court disagreed with our analysis on what’s been accomplished since a decision was rendered in November 2014, the court did what we thought proper by retaining oversight,” he said, adding that his clients are ready to collaborate with lawmakers “as they have always been to do everything they can to help the students we represent.”
House Speaker Jay Lucas said the latest order “explicitly validates the House’s education reform efforts.” He contends rural districts haven’t fully complied with their responsibilities.
“Reforming South Carolina’s education system requires more than legislative action, and every interested party must work together to improve every child’s access to a 21st century education,” said Lucas, R-Hartsville.