Supreme Court in S.C. Sets Stage for Debate On School 'Adequacy'

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South Carolina's highest court has set the stage for a legal battle over the quality of the state's public schools.

An April 22 decision in the state supreme court clarifies provisions of the South Carolina Constitution, which mandates a free and open system of education for all, while setting out loose performance-based standards for education.

Essentially, the 4-1 ruling orders a lower-court trial on whether South Carolina is providing an "adequate" education to the state's 655,400 public school students in grades K-12.

The state has a responsibility to provide children with a "minimally adequate" education, Chief Justice Ernest Finney Jr. wrote for the court majority.

School finance experts say the South Carolina ruling follows a trend in which courts around the nation are judging the legality of state education systems not solely by the amount of money a state spends per school district, but also by the quality of education that students receive.

In its decision, the South Carolina high court dismissed part of the lawsuit that focused on changing the state's school funding laws.

But the justices ordered that the remainder of the case--which focuses on the adequacy of a student's education--be returned to a lower court for trial.

The ruling in Abbeville County School District v. South Carolina is a defining one in that it sets standards for performance with no guidance on how to pay for schools, said John Augenblick of Augenblick & Myers, a Denver-based school finance consulting firm.

"South Carolina ... has changed the bar," Mr. Augenblick said last week. "They've changed the way you think about this stuff."

"I am confident that South Carolina can meet the legal test set down by the court when this matter is litigated further," Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, said in a statement after the ruling. "However, I believe our goal in South Carolina should be to create excellent schools, not just 'minimally adequate' schools."

Carl B. Epps III, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement: "The responsibility for ensuring that every child, no matter where he or she lives and regardless of his or her school district's financial well-being, now rests squarely on the state."

State officials and others said they could not predict when the case might go to trial.

Focus on Standards

The decision comes six years after lawyers for 30 districts sued the state, arguing that South Carolina's education funding formula was unfair to rural and poor schools.

By this year, more than 37 school districts--out of 95 in the state--as well as more than 60 parents and students had joined the lawsuit.

In laying out the standards by which the state's school system should be judged, Chief Justice Finney wrote that students must have the ability to read, write, and speak the English language and have a fundamental understanding of mathematics, physical science, economics, social and political systems, and history and governmental processes, as well as academic and vocational skills.

"We do not intend by this opinion to suggest to any party that we will usurp the authority of [the legislative] branch to determine the way in which educational opportunities are delivered to the children of our state," he wrote. "We do not intend for the courts of this state to become super-legislatures or super- school boards."

For many years, state courts ruled that fiscal equity meant that students were receiving equal educational opportunities, said Allan Odden, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, in Madison, Wis., and a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin there.

For the past 10 years, however, the courts have shifted that belief, Mr. Odden said in an interview.

Today, courts are more concerned with educational adequacy and ensuring that students receive the same quality of education regardless of how much money is spent to achieve the goal, according to Mr. Odden.

Courts in Alabama, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wyoming have all handed down rulings on adequacy, he said.

"The courts are saying that [state standards] are a pretty good idea, and that we need to marry finance with standards and programs," Mr. Odden said.

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 19

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Supreme Court in S.C. Sets Stage for Debate On School 'Adequacy'
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Web Resources
  • Read the text of the ruling in Abbeville County School District v. South Carolina, from the University of South Carolina Law Center.
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