BRACK: High court lets legislature off the education hook

The S.C. Supreme Court building in Columbia, S.C.

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |  Shame on a majority of the legislatively-elected S.C. Supreme Court for letting the General Assembly off the hook on funding poor, rural schools.  State leaders haven’t yet spent enough money or done enough work to upgrade these neglected schools so that they’re on par with urban and suburban public schools.

On Nov. 17, the court ruled 3-2 to dismiss the 24-year-old Abbeville v. State of South Carolina school equity funding lawsuit.  The order, however, is premature because state legislators only started moving these schools toward parity after a 2014 order by the court.  Now without the court’s oversight, there’s no pressure on the General Assembly to make good on its promises.

With gazillions of dollars of state funding needs, do you really trust legislators not to continue a legacy of inattention in the so-called “Corridor of Shame” area where a multitude of challenges persist?

Just walk through schools in places like Ridgeland, Allendale, Marion and Dillon and compare facilities, staff and support to schools in the Upstate or metro areas.  Think that you would prefer for your kids to attend school in the former group?

Carl Epps, an attorney for the school districts that filed the lawsuit a generation ago, said he was concerned about children who continue to suffer from the lack of educational opportunities that other kids in the state get.

“These children are not children of legislators. Legislators’ children are in other schools or in other areas,” he said.  “If this were not the case, the problems would have been addressed generations ago.

“My great fear is that the state will now content itself with passing piecemeal and clearly inadequate remedial legislation, as is its history, praise its accomplishments, and move on to another topic of another day.  I pray I am wrong.”

In 2005, Columbia filmmaker Bud Ferillo drew attention to these dilapidated schools, many of which are located along the Interstate 95 corridor, in a documentary, “Corridor of Shame.”

“What kind of state intentionally maintains a ‘minimally adequate education’ system? he asked after the court’s ruling.  “I am hugely disappointed with this action, but I hope the legislature will begin to implement multi-year remedies that address the miserable conditions of many school buildings, equitable teacher salaries with bonuses to teachers willing to work in these districts and provide technology needed for 21st education.”

Ferillo, who often talks about generational poverty in these areas, stressed that continuing a mostly “more of the same” approach in poor areas will keep South Carolina in the nation’s opportunity cellar.

“These children are not going back to textile mills and tobacco farms of yesteryear,” he said.  “They need high quality education from birth to graduate school. Shortchanging public education condemns these communities to third world status and continues our 50th-place ranking.”

While some GOP House and Senate leaders praised the court’s decision and pledge to continue to help poor, rural school districts, others weren’t as congratulatory.

“Simply put, the state of South Carolina doesn’t seem to care about these kids,” S.C. Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Williamsburg, told the Florence Morning News. “What the General Assembly did in light of Abbeville was merely a dog-and-pony show. There was no real change. Now that there are no Supreme Court orders to mandate change, I doubt there will be any change. We’re going back to the status quo.”

S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said the legislature wasn’t the only branch of government to blame: “We make tremendous changes to education in this state when we have a governor with vision and leadership like Dick Riley and we haven’t had that in over a decade.”

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice John Kittredge wrote the order of judicial oversight was vacated after the General Assembly provided good faith attempts and new reports “on the steps they have taken to provide students with the constitutionally mandated opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education.”

And there’s the big rub, as Ferillo suggests.  If state leaders continue to focus on doing the minimum – not what students really need to perform in the tech economy of the 21st century – we’ll continue to be in the basement.

We must do better for all of South Carolina’s students.  Otherwise, we are complicit in relegating a large number of our children to continuing failure.

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