Abbeville County School District v. State (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-131-14, 59 pp.) (Jean Hoefer Toal, Ch. J.) (John Kittredge, J., joined by Costa Pleicones, J., dissenting) Appealed from Lee County Circuit Court (Thomas Cooper Jr., J.) S.C. S. Ct.
Holding: Despite increased funding over the two-decade course of this lawsuit, the outcomes for the students of the plaintiff school districts have remained unsatisfactory; as a result, the parties are directed to work together to address the myriad troubles facing these districts at both state and local levels.
As modified, we affirm the trial court’s holding that the state’s failure to address the effects of pervasive poverty on students within the plaintiff school districts prevented those students from receiving the required opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education.
Even though, since the first oral argument in this case, defendants have made additional funding available and have introduced new education programs, defendants have not substantially changed the baseline funding mechanisms. Thus, the plaintiff-districts may validly argue that the overall funding scheme continues to disadvantage them in the same fundamental way.
While the remedy in this case may affect future policy decisions regarding the state’s education system, this controversy is justiciable. Interpretation of the law and evaluation of the government’s acts pursuant to that law are critical and necessary judicial functions.
The instrumentalities of learning – funding, curriculum, teachers, and programs – are present in this state and appear at the very least minimally adequate. Nevertheless, there is an apparent disconnect between intentions and performance.
In the plaintiff districts, inadequate transportation fails to convey children to school or home in a manner conducive to even minimal academic achievement. Students in the plaintiff districts receive instruction in many cases from a corps of unprepared teachers. Students in these districts are grouped by economic class into what amounts to no more than educational ghettos, rated by the Department of Education’s guidelines as substandard. Large percentages of the students in the plaintiff districts – over half in some instances – are unable to meet minimal benchmarks on standardized tests, but are nonetheless pushed through the system to “graduate.”
There is a tension, and perhaps an unhealthy one, inherent in a paradigm that balances, on the one hand, control of school districts by local legislative delegations, and, on the other, the defendants’ constitutional duty to ensure that all of South Carolina’s public school children receive the constitutionally mandated opportunity. Defendants fail to address how the state-wide education funding regime responds to fragmentary legislative control, and whether that control and resulting legislation has frustrated admirable education initiatives.
Nevertheless, the plaintiff districts failed to explore this dynamic and its effect on their students, nor presented to this court options and solutions regarding the structure of these school districts themselves. Instead, the plaintiff districts have opted for a course of self-preservation, placing all blame for the blighted state of education in their districts at the feet of defendants. This is not a fair characterization.
We hold that South Carolina’s educational funding scheme is a fractured formula denying students in the plaintiff districts the constitutionally required opportunity.
The trial court concluded that poverty accounts for the fact that students in some districts perform better than students in others. The record unequivocally supports this conclusion.
The General Assembly is primarily responsible for school finance reform. In light of this sacrosanct principle, we refuse to provide the General Assembly with a specific solution to the constitutional violation.
The cost of the educational package in South Carolina is based on a convergence of outmoded and outdated policy considerations that fail the students of the plaintiff districts. It is time for defendants to take a broader look at the principal causes for the unfortunate performance of students in the plaintiff districts, beyond mere funding.
Therefore, we direct the parties to reappear before this court within a reasonable time and present a plan to address the constitutional violation announced today, with special emphasis on the statutory and administrative pieces necessary to aid the myriad troubles facing these districts at both state and local levels. Until the reappearance, we will retain jurisdiction of this case.
The parties must identify the problems facing students in the plaintiff districts, and the parties can solve those problems through cooperatively designing a strategy to address critical concerns and cure the constitutional deficiency evident in this case.
Affirmed as modified.
(Kittredge, J.) I view the court’s decision as a policy opinion on the state of public education in South Carolina, in direct contravention of what this court said it would not do in Abbeville County School District v. State (Abbeville I), 335 S.C. 58, 515 S.E.2d 535 (1999) – act as a “super-legislature.” Based on my view of the rule of law, especially the principle of separation of powers, I believe the court has overstepped its bounds.
I would overrule Abbeville I, as I believe it represents a nonjusticiable political question. Nevertheless, as Abbeville I is the law of this case, we are constrained to resolve this appeal through the qualitative notion of a “minimally adequate education.” Under the Abbeville I framework, I would affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff districts’ state constitutional claim and reverse the finding of a constitutional violation of inadequate funding of pre-school, early childhood education programs.