South Carolina Rural Districts Hear Familiar Refrain in Court

Last Updated: September 26, 2012

This article appeared in the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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South Carolina plaintiff rural districts in the Abbeville school finance case were told they should ask to be consolidated, that they spend too much on administration, that they should be satisfied with an underfunded property-sales tax swap, and that although they may be suffering as a result of chronic fiscal starvation, there may be nothing a court can do about it.

Chief Justice Jean Toal interrupted the opening arguments of the plaintiffs’ attorneys by questioning why plaintiff districts already get higher-than-average financial support from the state. She suggested consolidation should be a remedy and questioned why the districts hadn’t asked to be consolidated. 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?"

Despite the onslaught of criticism and blame, lawyers for the districts countered that high rates of academic failure, teacher turnover, and absence of other needed supports demonstrates that the state is not providing the districts’ students even the constitutionally-required “minimally adequate” education. "The state has systematically segregated our poorest, African-American children into rural ghettos,” plaintiff attorney Steve Morrison argued, “and after doing so, has systematically refused to provide funding for them.”

The court ordered a rehearing after four years of silence following oral arguments in 2008. (See previous RSFN coverage here.) Since then, two new justices have joined the court.

Attorneys for the state argued that South Carolina has a revamped testing system and that many of the facilities presented as evidence in earlier stages of the trial have been replaced or repaired.

Attorneys for the districts argued that state funding has been steadily declining while both poverty and failure rates among students have been rising. And, they noted that the sole remedy ordered by the trial court — increased early childhood education opportunities — was only implemented as a pilot 4-K program that has, since its inception, been underfunded and oversubscribed. Studies of the program suggest that underfunding has resulted in unqualified teachers and lack of effectiveness in raising student achievement.

The justices ultimately acknowledged that the situation in these districts is dire, but also questioned whether the court has the authority to order policy changes that could make a difference, whether the court would have to maintain jurisdiction over the case indefinitely, and whether a court should rule on the case at all.

Justice Kay Hearn, one of the newest members of the court, questioned whether the state could follow the example of Washington, where the court retained jurisdiction to keep up with the legislature’s progress. (See “Remedy Phase in Washington State for additional coverage of the Washington case.)

After several justices acknowledged the challenges facing the plaintiffs, state lawyers told the court they could agree with a finding of a constitutional violation, but that thewould want to know the specific grounds for the finding. They also said that any remedy be left to the legislature.

Editor’s note: see previous RSFN coverage here.

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Local coverage:

See a timeline of the case here:

Review of 4-K funding issues here:

Read more from the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.