South Carolina Supreme Court Moves on School Funding Case

Last Updated: May 30, 2012

This article appeared in the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Nearly four years after oral arguments were made in Abbeville v. State, the South Carolina Supreme Court has issued a two-page order stating that attorneys for the parties must return to court in September to re-argue the case. The order also states that the lawyers should be prepared to discuss any recent school finance legislation that may have had an impact on the facts of the case.

Abbeville was originally filed by rural and low wealth school districts in 1993 as an equity and adequacy case. In 1999 the South Carolina Supreme Court dismissed the equity claim and ruled that the state’s constitution requires a “minimally adequate” educational system. The case was remanded to a circuit court for trial, which was held in 2005 in the historic Clarendon County Courthouse.

During the 102-day trial, seventy witnesses testified and 23,000 pages of transcription were generated. Testimony covered a wide range of serious problems in the plaintiff districts, including unqualified teachers, aging and dilapidated buildings, and the lack of funding to make changes in these and other areas. Later that year, the trial judge ruled that the state was meeting the “minimally adequate” standard except for young children living in poverty and ordered the state to provide more early childhood opportunities for students in preschool through third grade in the plaintiff districts. (Editor’s note: See previous RSFN coverage of the case here.)

The legislature responded by implementing a pilot 4-K program in eight of the thirty-six plaintiff districts. Not surprisingly, this has been woefully underfunded and many more eligible children are on waiting lists rather than in the programs. Students living in poverty who do not happen to live in the districts which brought the suit are not being served either.

Both sides appealed — the state saying this ruling went too far, and the districts saying it did not go far enough — and oral arguments were heard in the South Carolina Supreme Court on June 25, 2008. The state’s surprising defense as presented in appeal briefs and arguments to the court in the case has been that poor children cannot learn no matter what schools do.

The South Carolina Rural Education Grassroots Committee (SCREGG), a Rural Trust partner group, filed amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs to both the trial court and South Carolina Supreme Court. In their brief to the high court, they outlined how teacher quality problems in rural schools make the school funding system unconstitutional because there is no opportunity for students to acquire even a minimally adequate education without a qualified teacher. The stark reality in SC is that unequal funding for rural districts with limited property wealth translates into significant pay disparity, as much as $8,000 between districts, and too many teachers not prepared to teach assigned subjects.

Throughout the lengthy litigation, SCREGG advocates have worked on a variety of fronts to inform public opinion about school finance issues. They have worked in their individual communities to educate and build support for the lawsuit and to promote policy issues related to the plaintiff school districts.

Notably, legislative efforts to improve the school funding system in the state have failed. The most significant school finance change of the last decade, Act 388, which was passed in 2006, eliminated owner-occupied property taxes (for schools) in exchange for a 1-cent sales tax increase. This change has cost the state almost $600 million since passage, and the severe effects on school district budgets were part of the legal arguments made in 2008. (Editor’s note: For more information on the impact of state revenue policy on rural schools, see Part VI of our RSFN Special Series, “Characteristics of Strong Rural School Finance Systems,” here.)

Court watchers speculate that the order could indicate that the court needs additional information or clarification. Since oral arguments, two of the five Court’s Justices have retired. They will not return for the arguments, and instead their replacements will participate in this fall’s hearing.

Read more:

Exclusive coverage of the order was given to The State newspaper:

Recent editorial commentary regarding the lengthy wait for a decision:

Read more from the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.