Passions High as S.C. Finance Case Comes to a Close

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Steve Morrison’s voice shook with the weight of South Carolina’s history as he closed his arguments against the state last month in the key trial of an 11-year-old school finance case.

“We are not keeping the covenant with our children in the poorest and most rural school districts,” the lawyer told the court on Dec. 8. “It’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s unconstitutional.”

One of the three lawyers representing 36 rural school districts and several individuals that sued the state in 1993, Mr. Morrison and his colleagues have spent the past 16 months arguing in this small-town courtroom for a greater share of school aid to help the districts educate their mostly poor, minority populations of students.

A vigil is held outside the Clarendon County Courthouse Dec. 9 to show support for the plaintiffs prior to closing arguments in the South Carolina school finance hearing.
A vigil is held outside the Clarendon County Courthouse Dec. 9 to show support for the plaintiffs prior to closing arguments in the South Carolina school finance hearing.
—Bart Boatwright/Greenville News

South Carolina is one of 16 states embroiled in school finance lawsuits. But the state’s lengthy school finance trial has drawn national attention, in part because the first of the lawsuits that together became Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka began here in Clarendon County, about 70 miles northwest of Charleston, S.C. ("Stuck in Time," Jan. 21, 2004.)

Lawyers for both sides in the case, Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, have invoked the 1949 lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott, that led to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning racially segregated systems of public schooling.

“The time has come for [the dream of] those courageous parents who signed the petition in Briggs v. Elliott to be realized,” Mr. Morrison argued here on the final day of the trial.

On the other side, the state’s lawyers have argued that helping South Carolina’s many poor rural students is a goal shared by governors, legislators, and everyone else in the state. But they told Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. that South Carolina’s constitution simply does not require the state to do more than it does already.

Bobby Stepp, one of the state’s lawyers, contended in his closing arguments before a half-full courtroom that the state already provides the opportunity for a “minimally adequate” education for all students.

The words “minimally adequate” come from a 1999 state supreme court ruling in which the South Carolina justices said the state constitution requires such a level of public schooling from the state.

“The problem is,” Mr. Stepp said of the plaintiffs’ argument, “these words aren’t there” in the state constitution.

Judge Cooper likely will make a decision in the Abbeville case, named for one of the plaintiff school districts, in about six months.

50 More Years?

Whatever his decision, the case faces likely appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which appeared to show support for the rural districts in 1999, when it overturned Judge Cooper’s initial dismissal of the case.

Mr. Stepp argued on the state’s behalf that low student achievement and other factors in the quality of the education that poor, rural children receive are a result of history—and cannot be overcome simply with additional funding for K-12 schools.

“The effects it [poverty] has are deeply embedded in society and culture” in the state, he said. “Is that something schools can do, or is that something that society has to muster?” he asked.

“The answer is no, we don’t know how to do this. It’s not happening anywhere,” he said of educating poor students.

Mr. Stepp also made the claim that the state already provides the opportunity for a minimally adequate education because about half of its K-12 students are scoring at “basic” levels on state tests.

During the trial, several state legislators took the stand as witnesses to say they had done much in recent years to improve education in the state. They cited approving a $750 million bond package for school facilities and, separately, the passage of the state’s Education Accountability Act of 1998, which preceded the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The state has argued the school accountability law is doing more to improve schools than would any reasonable amount of new money.

“Is the system underfunded? I don’t know, but there’s a lot more money now in the system since this lawsuit was filed,” Mr. Stepp said during closing arguments. “Why would we think the next batch of more money will do what the first batch of more money could not do?”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have argued that South Carolina’s general-fund spending on K-12 schools has dropped from a majority of the state budget in the 1960s to about one-third in 2004. The state has responded that additional education funding mechanisms were begun in the 1980s.

The state’s contention that nothing will fully overcome the effects of poverty on student achievement in the rural districts was offensive to educators watching the trial, including Tom Truitt, who has written a daily Web column about the trial.

“Their argument is, poor children can’t learn and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Mr. Truitt, the executive director of the Pee Dee Educational Center, a regional service agency for rural districts, based in Florence, S.C. “I don’t think it’s true. We have too many examples that say it’s not.”

Mr. Truitt, a former superintendent of the Florence schools, said he has doubts about whether Judge Cooper will rule in favor of the rural districts.

“The politics of the state make it difficult for a judge to rule against the General Assembly that appoints him,” he said.

John Kirby, the superintendent of Dillon County School District Three, said he hopes the court will do more to help his rural 1,600-student district on the coastal plains near the North Carolina border hire good teachers, provide nicer school buildings, and provide extra help for struggling students.

Mr. Kirby, whose Latta, S.C.-based district is one of the plaintiffs in the Abbeville case, noted the 50 years that had passed since the beginnings of the Brown cluster of cases in this county. “I hope it’s not another 50” years before education improves drastically for young people in rural areas of the state, he said.

Doing Enough?

For the plaintiffs’ part, Mr. Morrison reviewed his side’s claim that South Carolina does badly by its poorest schoolchildren living in its most rural areas. He showed charts listing the plaintiff districts’ generally low graduation rates and test scores, and reviewed testimony contending that the districts have little extra money to provide more help to schools that are struggling academically and to repair school buildings.

He also reviewed evidence showing they have a far more difficult time finding highly qualified teachers and suffer from much higher rates of teacher and administrator turnover than the state’s more successful, suburban districts do.

Mr. Morrison told the court that nearly eight of 10 schools in the plaintiff districts scored “unsatisfactory,” the lowest rating on state report cards, for three straight years since 1999. About one in five teachers in the plaintiff districts leaves for a less remote, better-paying school district within three years, he added.

“This is symptomatic of a systematic failure,” Mr. Morrison said. “The covenant is not being kept.”

If the courts ultimately rule for the rural districts, the plaintiffs could face a stiff political battle for their cause. The Republicans who have taken control of the legislature and the governor’s office, and other current officeholders, aren’t seen as sympathetic.

Speaker of the House David Wilkins, a Republican, even sat with the state’s lawyers during part of the closing arguments. During a break, he suggested to several reporters covering the case that increases in education funding over the years have offered rural districts plenty of opportunities to improve their facilities and raise test scores.

“We have a strong position,” he said. “I’ve been proud of what the General Assembly has done in the past.”

Gov. Mark Sanford supported a small increase in state K-12 education aid last year, but the Republican has made clear that any future support for large amounts of new school aid will be coupled with expanded school choice, an appointed state schools chief, and less spending on the state education department.

“Where more money hadn’t worked, why not try some sort of marketplace dynamic?” said Will Folks, Gov. Sanford’s press secretary.

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Pages 19, 22

Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as Passions High as S.C. Finance Case Comes to a Close
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