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Rural Students Cited in S.C. School-Finance Arguments

South Carolina requires students to be offered a "minimally adequate" education, and the state's highest court is weighing whether that's happened for some of its poorest, most-rural students.

A landmark school-funding lawsuit was heard again by the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, about four years since the case first appeared before the same court. The case has been in court for nearly two decades, and the eight plaintiff trial districts are among the most rural and economically deprived in the state.

South Carolina is among 45 states that have had lawsuits challenging its method of funding public schools.

In the Palmetto State, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper issued in December 2005 a split decision on the case, saying the state needed to invest more in early childhood education but teacher pay and buildings were adequate.

Cooper dismissed appeals from both the plaintiff districts and the state, and both appealed to the state Supreme Court. Rural districts want the state to do more for teachers, classrooms and buildings, while the state wants the early childhood mandate reversed.

I sat in on the one-day hearing on Tuesday and covered the story for The Post and Courier.

Steve Morrison, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff districts, used strong language when describing to the court the educational plight of these poor, rural children. He said they don't receive the opportunity to read, write, and speak the English language or receive fundamental knowledge of science and math.

"The state has systematically segregated our poorest, African-American children into rural ghettos," said Morrison. "And the state has systematically refused to provide funding that would produce a constitutionally adequate education."

The state's attorney, Bobby Stepp, countered that the case wasn't about what is best for education in South Carolina; it's about whether the state has fulfilled its obligation to give every child the opportunity for a minimally adequate education. The state has done that, he said.

The judges asked questions ranging from whether the districts' small sizes were part of its problems, and whether they spent too much on administrative costs rather than classrooms.

"I think it is telling that your school districts are all very small school districts who get far more than the state average in financial support but it's also telling that most spend at least half or maybe more strictly on administration, not on what is offered by way of inputs to classrooms," Chief Justice Jean Toal told the plaintiff districts' attorneys.

The court's five justices haven't given a timeline as to when they will make a decision.

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