South Carolina: State Supreme Court yet to rule on education lawsuit: Wait time is longest for any similar high court decision

By Seanna Adcox

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Nearly three years after lawyers for South Carolina's rural school districts and lawyers for the state faced off before the state Supreme Court, educators, legislators and the public are still awaiting the justices' decision on an education funding lawsuit that dates to 1993.

The justices could decide whether legislators must do more to help rural districts hire top-notch teachers, fix dilapidated school buildings and stock classrooms, or that state funding already sufficiently supplies students access to a "minimally adequate education," the constitutional standard set by the state's high court in a 1999 ruling that sent the case to trial.

As a third option, the justices could simply uphold a December 2005 lower court order, which gave a partial victory to both sides. There is no deadline on a decision.

"I just wonder if they'll ever rule," said Tom Truitt, retired former superintendent of Florence District 1, one of 40 districts to initially sue. "I really would like for them to say something, even if it's to say we're not going to rule, because it's just left hanging there."

He notes much has changed since 2005 -- from the Great Recession to a state law that further complicated school funding.

"I don't know how all that affects the decision," he said.

The wait time since lawyers argued their appeals in June 2008 is the longest for any high court decision on an education funding lawsuit, said professor Michael Rebell, executive director of Columbia University-based National Access Network, which tracks the lawsuits nationwide.

Three to five months is normal, he said of education adequacy decisions in 33 states over more than two decades.

"Two to three years is very unusual," he said.

Both sides are waiting to see which parts, if any, of Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper's ruling are upheld or overturned.

In 2005, after 102 days of testimony, Cooper ruled legislators must do more in the early years to help poor children overcome the effects of poverty and start school ready to learn. But he also ruled that buildings, teacher pay and classroom supplies were adequate.

Six months later, the Legislature responded by creating a full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program specifically for at-risk children in plaintiff districts -- a solution educators contend fell far short of the judge's order.

"He didn't say anything about just 4K. He said early interventions," said Carl Epps, an attorney for the school districts.

Though many legislators pushed to expand the limited program statewide, others said they wanted to wait for a Supreme Court decision. The state's appeal asked the court to overturn the early childhood portion, arguing that the constitution does not require the state to intervene before children get to school. Educators also hoped a decision in their favor would push legislators to finally revamp the state's decades-old education funding formulas.

But after years of no word, the once much-anticipated decision is now rarely mentioned at the Statehouse.

"I think we've moved on," said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, chairman of the K-12 education subcommittee. "Whenever the court's ready to make a decision, we'll deal with it."

Questions about the decision also took a back seat to the economy, as the state's spending plan shrank from $7 billion in 2008 to $5 billion this fiscal year.

"I'm not sure what more the General Assembly could've done considering the tough economic times," said Hayes, who hopes the state can eventually offer kindergarten for all at-risk 4-year-olds, after the economy improves.

Regardless of the lack of a decision, momentum appears to be growing to overhaul school funding, after years of talk but no movement.

Former South Carolina education superintendent Jim Rex said he thinks lawmakers are ready to change the antiquated formulas -- something he advocated throughout his term. A task force of school, business and community leaders that Rex created issued its proposals in December 2007.

"For the last two years, there has been a consensus building that the process we have now isn't working," Rex said. "Now it's about getting agreement on what the new system should look like."

Bills passed this year by the House and in the Senate committee process would simplify how money's doled out, while distributing more money for students who are poor or are learning English. The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year calls for those distributions to be calculated, so legislators can see the cost and school officials can see how they'd be affected.

Whether a Supreme Court decision would help or hinder the reform process depends on the ruling, said Hayes, who has led a panel studying the issue.

"It all depends on what the court says the problem is, if they do say there's a problem," he said, adding he hopes the justices "at least give some indication of where that is."

Published: Wed, May 4, 2011