After 24 years of court battles, a landmark school equity lawsuit aimed at improving education opportunities in the state’s poorest, rural schools has been dismissed.
The S.C. Supreme Court closed the case in a 3-2 order, praising state lawmakers for responding in “good faith” to the court’s 2014 mandate to find ways to fix South Carolina’s failing public schools. State House leaders, who asked the court to dismiss them from the case, applauded the ruling.
“Today’s order confirms that the Supreme Court is satisfied by the House’s transformative efforts to improve South Carolina’s education system,” House Speaker Jay Lucas said after the court’s decision was handed down Friday. . “Providing every child in every part of our state access to a 21st century education has and will continue to be a priority for the South Carolina House of Representatives.”
Meanwhile, the ruling was disappointing to an attorney representing the more than 30 poor, rural school districts that sued the state in 1993, arguing they did not have the money or resources to provide children with a quality education.
“We proved in court that the children we represent are not being offered the opportunity for even a minimally adequate education,” Carl Epps, who represented the plaintiff districts, said Monday. He was referring to the Supreme Court’s previous ruling that found the state was violating the Constitution by not providing all state children access to what it termed a “minimally adequate” education.
“We had hoped the court would impose a deadline, as has been done in other states, for the state to develop a plan to address these children’s needs,” he said, adding, “Until this is done, the children will continue to flounder and will have little chance of success in life.”
Court’s authority an issue
Besides praising lawmakers for their “good faith” response, the court’s order reverses its 2014 decision to inject itself as a supervisor to the Legislature, demanding legislative action and requiring progress updates from lawmakers.
Writing for the majority in Friday’s order, Justice John Kittridge said the court did not have the authority to supervise the legislative process, calling the 2014 decision a “gross overreach of judicial power.”
Kittridge, and justices John Few and George James, were in the majority. Few and James were elected to the court after the 2014 order. Former Chief Justice Jean Toal, who backed the 2014 decision, has retired.
Chief Justice Donald Beatty, one of two dissenting judges, wrote that the court had “lost the will to do even the minimal amount necessary to avoid becoming complicit actors in the deprivation of a minimally adequate education to South Carolina’s children.”
Beatty applauded the S.C. House’s leadership but said he would have preferred the court stay involved until lawmakers were able to fully study the state’s funding of education.
After the completion of such a study, “the Court’s intervention would no longer be necessary to foster dialogue and cooperation.”
‘It’s up to the voters’
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who co-chairs a panel tasked with reforming K-12 education in South Carolina, said he understands why the court dismissed the lawsuit and reversed the 2014 decision that had the court oversee legislative efforts to develop policy.
“It was an impossible situation for the court. The court is not a policy-making body,” Sheheen said.
Sheheen said the public must become more invested in fixing public education for anything to change.
“It’s up to the voters,” he said. “The court frankly recognizes that over the last 20 years voters have elected policy makers who are not going to make those changes.”
Lucas, the Republican House speaker from Darlington County, promised Monday that lawmakers would continue to work to improve the education options available to the state’s children.
“Although more legislative initiatives and updated funding formulas are part of the House’s plan for continued improvement, the General Assembly can now focus solely on our children’s education needs rather than compliance with the arbitrary standard set forth in the Abbeville lawsuit.”
Not all is lost in the lawsuit’s dismissal, said Epps, attorney for the plaintiff school districts.
“If nothing else, the lawsuit had brought to light what before that time had been in the darkness,” said Epps, the school districts’ attorney.
“There is no way in the world leaders can say they don't know about the problem and that it's not their obligation to fix it.”