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South Carolina Supreme Court: Many Students Do Not Receive Constitutionally Adequate Education

The South Carolina Supreme Court issued an order yesterday in Abbeville County Schools v. South Carolina, ruling that South Carolina does not provide plaintiffs’ school districts with a constitutionally adequate education.  The Court then ordered both sides to submit a plan to address the issues presented in the case.  ICS looks forward to this opportunity to improve outcomes for young children.

Brief Background

The case began in 1993, when a group of school districts and other plaintiffs sued the state over concerns about how we provide and fund education for many of our students.  The trial court initially ruled that there was no legal foundation for the lawsuit, but the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned that decision in 1999 and allowed the case to proceed to trial.

An extended trial followed, and the trial court dismissed many of the school systems’ claims.  The judge also ruled, however, that the lack of early-childhood education in less-wealthy districts was a serious concern.  In the words of the court:

The child born to poverty whose cognitive abilities have largely been  formed by the age of six in a setting largely devoid of printed word, the life blood of literacy, and other stabilizing influences necessary for normal development, is already behind, before he or she receives the first word of instruction in a formal educational setting. It is for this reason that early childhood intervention at the pre-kindergarten level and continuing through at least grade three is necessary to minimize, to the extent possible, the impact and the effect of poverty on the educational abilities and achievements of these children.

Both sides to the case appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court of South Carolina heard oral argument on the issue in both 2008 and 2012.  The Court issued an opinion yesterday that mostly upheld the trial court’s decision.

Yesterday’s Ruling

The Court upheld the finding that the schools did not meet the constitutional standard for providing a minimally adequate education for all children (“We hold that South Carolina’s educational funding scheme is a fractured formula denying students in the Plaintiff Districts the constitutionally required opportunity.”)  Rather than providing specific policy guidance on how to address this constitutional violation, the Court required the parties to recommend a plan to the Court to address the issue.    In the words of the Court:

The principle of separation of powers directs that the legislature, not the judiciary, is the proper institution to make major educational policy choices. Bess J. Durant, The Political Question Doctrine: A Doctrine for Long-Term Change in our Public Schools, 59 S.C. L. Rev. 531, 531 (Spring 2008). Thus, the General Assembly is primarily responsible for school finance reform. Id. In light of this sacrosanct principle, we refuse to provide the General Assembly with a specific solution to the constitutional violation.

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Therefore, we direct both the Plaintiff Districts and the Defendants to reappear before this Court within a reasonable time from the issuance of this opinion, 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.  However, we give leave to the parties to suggest to the Court precisely how to proceed. In particular, we invite the parties to make additional filings suggesting a specific timeline for the reappearance, as well as specific, planned remedial measures. Until the reappearance, we will retain jurisdiction of this case. Cf. Brown II, 349 U.S. at 300–01 (retaining jurisdiction of the case until the defendants made a “prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance” with the ruling from Brown I).

We will continue to follow this case as it proceeds in the months to come.


Update: This article was edited on 11/13/14 at 10:50 am to provide a more detailed analysis of this ruling.  The original content of the post is included below:

The South Carolina Supreme Court issued an opinion today in the case of Abbeville School District, et. al., vs. the State of South Carolina.  The opinion affirmed the lower court’s decision in part, and reversed it in part.  The full opinion is available here.

We will be providing a more complete analysis as soon as possible.

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