South Carolina Sued by 39 Districts Over Equal Funding


South Carolina’s Supreme Court has issued a deadline to the state’s legislature that gives lawmakers until February to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to ensure quality education for students in low-income schools.

Jamie Self, writing for Independent Mail, says the court voted 3-2 to have an order issued on Thursday, giving the leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate, and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, a Feb. 1 deadline to present a fully developed plan, along with legislation, to overhaul those schools.

When the court ordered the state and the 39 rural school districts to join together to develop an improvement plan, Carl Epps, the attorney representing the districts that had sued the state in 1993, said a court assigned timeline was needed to help the process proceed at a steady pace. But House Speaker Jay Lucas (R-Darlington) called the court’s decision arbitrary and opined that the three members who were responsible for the majority vote had a “complete lack of understanding of the legislative process.”

“Clearly legislation is not passed by proposal. It’s passed by actual bills that have to go through the House, through the Senate and go through the veto process,” said Lucas, an attorney. “Those are the rules that we have to play by.”

The House-appointed task force has says it will have a report ready for review in January that will include recommendations for relevant policies. The state Senate also named a committee to address the ruling.

“To have this ruling come at this point in time certainly makes me wonder whether the court is worried about this issue or just creating a legacy of the chief justice prior to her term expiring.”

Chief Justice Jean Toal, who retires at the end of the year, said she would not be commenting on the order because it speaks for itself. Earlier this year, the legislature voted Associate Justice Costa Pleicones as successor to Toal. Pleicones was one of the dissenters from the court’s 2014 school-equity ruling, as well as the order setting deadlines released on Thursday, reports Cynthia Roldan of The Post and Courier.

Included in the order was the instruction that a panel of three experts must be formed by October 15. Their job will be to identify the educational needs of students in the poor, rural districts that sued the state. Payment for two of the experts will come from the General Assembly and the school districts. The third expert will be State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

School districts must respond to the state plan by March 1. The panel of experts has been directed to produce a written report which evaluates the state’s plan by March 15. The plan will then be given to the Supreme Court to be reviewed, along with the expert panel’s report. The court will issue an order stating whether the plan is a “rational means of bringing the system of public education in South Carolina into constitutional compliance.”

Governor Nikki Haley and legislative leaders asked the court last December to reverse its decision or rehear the case. Lawmakers argue that the court has overstepped its authority by telling policymakers what should be done. Members of Lucas’ committee have discussed consolidating districts and ways to use technology to promote virtual learning.

A case in the state of Washington similar to this one resulted in the high court holding the Legislature in contempt and fining the state $100,000 per a day beginning in mid-August because the state did not come up with a plan to properly fund K-12 public education as required by a 2012 decision.

The Associated Press summed up the issue:

Ruling on a 21-year-old case, the justices found the state’s decades-old, piecemeal funding scheme fails to provide students in poor, rural districts the opportunity to succeed. They told legislators and district officials to collectively fix the problem.