Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ruling in Abbeville v South Carolina is long overdue

I've mentioned the Abbeville v South Carolina case several times before; it's the suit brought on behalf of several poor, rural school districts to force lawmakers to address inequity in school funding in our state, and it's the litigation at the heart of Bud Ferillo's documentary, "Corridor of Shame."

In the April 20 edition of the Statehouse Report, Andy Brack took up the topic and concluded that it's well past time for the state Supreme Court to have issued a ruling in this matter.

It takes four years for most high school students to graduate from high school. Most college students traditionally also graduate in four years.

But four years apparently isn’t enough time for the state Supreme Court to come to a conclusion about a festering school funding case first filed by poor South Carolina school districts in 1993. Yes, 1993. A student in first grade back then should, by now, be out of college and could even have a master’s degree. This thing has been going on that long.

In June 2008 -- a year before then Gov. Mark Sanford changed the definition of what it meant to “hike the Appalachian Trail” -- the S.C. Supreme Court heard oral arguments appealing a 2007 ruling on the Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina case. Since then, an opinion has been pending. “We have no idea of knowing” when a decision will be rendered, a court spokesman said this week.

Really? After four years? The high court needs to get off of its robes and make a decision soon, particularly since state legislators now are gearing up to talk about (guess what?) revising the formula that funds public schools. Wouldn’t it be nice for legislators to have the court’s guidance on the constitutionality of issues related to public school funding before politically manipulating the formula so they don’t have to redo everything if the court rules for the poor school districts?

At issue is the case brought by poor, rural school districts like Abbeville County through the “Corridor of Shame” districts from Dillon to Ridgeland along Interstate 95. In essence, they complained 19 years ago that students in poor districts received a constitutionally-inappropriate and inadequate public education due to a variety of factors, most of which centered on funding.

By 1999, the state Supreme Court made a ruling in an appeal that set a standard for “minimum adequate education.” Before remanding the original case to the lower court to be considered again, it defined the standard “to include providing students adequate and safe facilities in which they have the opportunity to acquire: 1) the ability to read, write and speak the English language, and the knowledge of mathematics and physical science; 2) a fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and 3) academic and vocational skills.”

After a flurry of motions and filings, the circuit court then held 102 days of trial, starting in July 2003 and ending in December 2004. It heard 102 witnesses in person or by deposition, which generated a 23,100-page transcript. Some 4,400 documents were received in evidence. A year later, state Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper essentially ruled that the state provided a minimally-adequate education to students in the poor districts. But Cooper, now retired, required the state to fund early childhood intervention programs to satisfy constitutional requirements under the “minimally adequate” standard.

Cooper’s ruling didn’t make the plaintiffs or state happy. In 2006, both filed motions to get the court to change its 2006 order. Those motions were denied in July 2007. The following month, that decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court. In turn, it heard oral arguments on June 25, 2008 -- almost 46 months ago. Since then: not a word.

If the court’s not ready to rule yet, it might consider sending a signal that it still finds the case important by asking for further arguments, inviting additions to the record or accepting friendly opinions from interested parties.

But to do nothing is not in the interest of the public, especially in a state where legislators this year underfunded public education’s base student cost by about $700 million. This case is too important for today’s students to have to wait another generation for a ruling.

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