Court ponders role in improving rural S.C. school districts

Justices doubt powers in case

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COLUMBIA — South Caro­lina’s Supreme Court justices said Tuesday that they recognize that students in poor, rural districts aren’t succeeding but question whether they can force legislative action.

The high court heard arguments on a 19-year-old case that pits struggling districts against lawmakers.

District attorney Carl Epps told justices their decision will determine whether another generation of children is doomed to a life of poverty, while state attorney Bob­by Stepp said it’s not their duty to set education policy.

The court is asked to decide whether South Carolina schools provide all students access to a “minimally adequate education” – the constitutional standard justices set in their 1999 ruling that sent the case to trial.

That interpretation set a very low bar that’s hard to flunk, said Stepp, who argued that the opportunity exists, regardless of actual achievement.

“This case is not and has never been about what’s best for education in South Carolina,” Stepp said. “This case is simply about whether we’ve fulfilled our constitutional obligation, not whether we’ve met our educational aspirations.”

The districts’ attorneys contend the court has the obligation to determine the state has failed to provide students a chance at success. It would then be up to legislators to investigate students’ needs and overhaul a complicated, piecemeal funding system that’s based on laws passed in 1977 and 1984, they said.

Chief Justice Jean Toal repeatedly asked the districts’ attorneys for specific suggestions for a court order.

“Just because the Legis­la­ture doesn’t have the political will to do it, how do we have the authority?” she asked.

Without specifics, an order would be nothing more than an advisory opinion, Justice John Kittredge said.

The sides were re-arguing their appeal of a December 2005 lower court ruling that gave each a partial victory.

The justices could order legislators to do more to help districts hire top-notch teachers, fix school buildings and stock classrooms. They could reverse the lower court’s order that legislators do more in the early years to help poor children overcome generational poverty. They could uphold the split decision. Or, they could dismiss the case as moot, as Stepp has asked.

Epps argued the most important aspect to a child’s education is a quality teacher, but plaintiff districts have the state’s lowest-paid, least-experienced teachers who hold the fewest degrees, and employ the most substitutes and foreign teachers who don’t speak English well. Stepp countered that while good teachers matter, teaching credentials don’t.

Toal noted the plaintiff districts already get higher-than-average financial support, when including all sources. She repeatedly pointed to district consolidation as part of the solution and questioned why districts weren’t pushing legislators to reconfigure them.

The plaintiff districts are “too small and spend a lot of resources on duplicative administration,” she said. “There’s no good reason for it, is there?”


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