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S.C. Supreme Court Rules For Poor, Rural Districts in Lawsuit

Cross posted from District Dossier

A 21-year-old legal battle waged by more than two dozen school districts that accused the state of South Carolina of failing to provide a "minimally adequate" education for poor and rural students came to an end Wednesday, after the state Supreme Court ruled in the districts' favor. 

In a 3-2 ruling, the state high court upheld an earlier Circuit Court decision that said South Carolina officials failed to live up to their constitutional obligation to adequately fund poor and rural schools. The state's failure to address the "effects of pervasive poverty on students within the plaintiffs' school districts prevented those students from receiving the required opportunity," the ruling said.

But Chief Justice Jean Toal, who wrote the majority opinion, did not absolve the plaintiff districts for their role in exacerbating funding inequities, arguing that local spending priorities--for athletic facilities and other auxiliary services while students languished in "crumbling schools and toxic academic environments"--were also part of the problem.  

However, the brunt of the responsibility was put on the defendants, among them the state of South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, and the top two leaders in the state legislature. 

The defendants "bear the burden articulated by our State's Constitution, and have failed in their constitutional duty to ensure that students in the Plaintiff Districts receive the requisite educational opportunity," the judge wrote. "Thousands of South Carolina's school children--the quintessential future of our state--have been denied this opportunity due to no more than historical accident."

The defendants argued that part of the districts' case was moot because the state funding formula for public schools has been revised several times since the lawsuit was filed and more money had been directed to early-childhood education. They also argued some students in the plaintiff districts had succeeded--evidence, they said, that there were opportunities for children to excel. The justices in the majority rejected those arguments.

The ruling directed both sides to come up with a solution and compelled both to design a plan that addresses the constitutional violation.

The two dissenting justices argued that school funding was a matter for the state legislature and that the court was overstepping its bounds. 

The lawsuit has a long and complicated history. Since it was first filed in 1993, thousands of children have attended and graduated from schools in the plaintiff districts.

Abbeville County School District, et. al. v. the State of South Carolina was first filed on behalf of nearly 30 districts that alleged that the 1977 K-12 funding formula, which the legislature used to disburse school aid, was unfair to rural and poor areas.

The state successfully sought dismissal of the case in 1996, which the districts appealed.  In 1999, the state Supreme Court ruled that the General Assembly was required by the state's constitution to "provide the opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate" public education, and sent the case back to the Circuit Court.  

In a 2005 ruling, both sides had some measures of victory. Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper ordered the legislature to pour more money into early-childhood education, while the districts lost on issues related to teacher pay and buildings. Both sides appealed the portions of the case they lost, according to the Associated Press. 

District supporters told local media that Wednesday's ruling was a long time coming and praised the South Carolina Supreme Court for acting in their favor. A former state superintendent called the funding mechanism a "premeditated felony" that should have long been remedied. 

"Our state has given children in the most impoverished and rural portions of our state a chance of life," said Carl Epps, an attorney for the districts, told the Associated Press. "We look forward to working with the state so these children will indeed have the opportunities that a generation of poverty and lack of consistent state approach to education has caused."

Gov. Haley, who noted that she attended rural schools, said in a statement that she understood the challenges they faced and that she remained committed to public education. 

The South Carolina decision has broad implications for the future of public school education funding in the state. Similar challenges to state funding mechanisms are underway in various states, including in Mississippi and Pennsylvania. Education advocates  there are in process of seeking redress to rectify what they see as structural funding deficits that deny public school students of the education required either by those states' laws or constitutions. 

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