Rural School Funding News: South Carolina Rural Schools Have Their Day in Court

Last Updated: August 01, 2008

This article appeared in the August 2008 Rural Policy Matters.

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In a dramatic and at times heated exchange, South Carolina Supreme Court justices assured lawyers for plaintiff districts that they recognize the severe discrepancies in the quality of education in poor and rural schools in the state. “But what would you have us to do?” asked Chief Justice Jean Toal.
Toal’s concern reflects a recent trend in some states’ highest courts to shirk their responsibility to determine whether states are meeting their constitutionally-imposed duties. Attorneys from Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, who have worked pro bono (without pay) on the case, assured the South Carolina court that they would be well within their authority to declare the entire state education system unconstitutional and to order the legislature to make it constitutional. While courts in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and other states in the past year have declared that the state legislature should make all decisions regarding education, the most recent sister state decision in Indiana, did just the opposite. The Indiana court clearly reasoned that interpreting the state constitution’s education clause is exactly the job of the court, as has been the case in most states. Notably, the Rural Trust co-authored a friend of the court brief in Indiana that took just that position.
The South Carolina case, Abbeville v. State, was appealed to the state Supreme Court after the trial judge measured the evidence and found that the system is unconstitutional as to very young students living in poverty. Judge Thomas Cooper ordered the state to provide more early childhood educational opportunities to students up to third grade in the plaintiff districts, and the legislature responded by funding a pilot 4-K (preschool) program. Other preschool programs were already in place in the state funded in part by private partnerships, but no wholesale change was made.
The standard set by the state Supreme Court in the first Abbeville decision in 1999 was that the state system must be “minimally adequate.” This led Cooper to find that the old and dilapidated facilities, the lack of qualified teachers, and the other problems in underfunded districts did not warrant court-ordered reform. Plaintiffs appealed on these issues, and the state cross-appealed, saying that not only was it correct to find that all was adequate in the districts, but that Cooper overstepped his judicial authority on the preschool ruling.
In a friend of the court amicus brief, the South Carolina Rural Education Grassroots Group (SCREGG) and Rural Trust urged the justices to consider the teacher quality problems in rural schools severe enough to declare the entire system unconstitutional because the state is not ensuring that every student has the opportunity to learn without this most important input. Much evidence was presented at trial about the higher rates of teacher turnover, of long-term substitutes, of inexperienced and unqualified teachers in rural schools, and SCREGG reminded the court of the vast body of research that demonstrates that without a high-quality teacher, students do not have an opportunity to learn, and in fact can lose ground as a result.
The brief also cited the numerous strategies that South Carolina should be using to ensure that all students have a high quality teacher, including increasing teacher pay, providing authentic mentoring for new teachers and meaningful professional development to support teachers in challenging classrooms. Chief Justice Toal even cited one of those strategies mentioned in the brief during oral argument. However, SCREGG reminded the court that it needed to look no further than a single unstaffed classroom to find unconstitutional inadequacy in plaintiff districts, and urged the court to rule the system broken.
SCREGG and Rural Trust were joined by South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, the South Carolina Association for School Nurses, the South Carolina League of Women Voters, the South Carolina State Conference of The NAACP, the Education Law Center, Education Justice, the National ACCESS Network, the National School Board Association, and the South Carolina Associations of School Boards and of School Administrators in filing briefs. A decision is expected soon.
Read more:
Background on Abbeville:
Local coverage of the oral arguments:
Op-eds about the case and school funding needs in South Carolina generally:
Read the amicus brief filed by National School Board Association, Education Justice at the Education Law Center and the National ACCESS Network encouraging the court to exercise its judicial responsibility to interpret the state constitutional provision as most other state high courts have done:
Read the amicus brief of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, and the Starting at 3 project of the Education Law Center supporting the trial court’s order on early childhood education:
Work on other fronts in South Carolina:
State Education Superintendent Jim Rex is pushing for legislative overhaul of the state’s funding formula:
The drive to collect enough signatures to amend the state constitution continues:

Read more from the August 2008 Rural Policy Matters.