Law & Courts

S.C. Judge Tells State to Do More for Young Children

January 10, 2006 5 min read

A South Carolina judge’s ruling that the state must provide more educational opportunities for young children in poor and rural areas is setting the stage for an extensive legislative and policy debate on K-12 schools in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. ruled Dec. 29 in favor of eight small, rural districts, saying the state fails to provide the youngest children in those areas “the opportunity to obtain a minimally adequate education.”

He did not dictate a clear remedy, but ordered state lawmakers to provide substantial help for young children, from preschool through the 3rd grade.

Judging the System

Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. has handed down a long-awaited and mixed ruling for the plaintiffs in the South Carolina school finance case Abbeville v. State. Either side could appeal the decision.

On Money:
Adequate funding not provided for early-childhood programs; state must provide more educational opportunities for prekindergarten through 3rd grade. School finance system otherwise sufficient.

On School Buildings:
Safe and sufficient to provide opportunity for minimally adequate education.

On Academic Standards:
In line with definition for minimally adequate education.

On Teacher Licensure:
Sufficient to ensure at least minimally adequate teachers in plaintiff districts.

SOURCE: Court of Common Pleas, 3rd Judicial Circuit, South Carolina

“Early-childhood intervention at the prekindergarten level and continuing through at least grade 3 is necessary to minimize, to the extent possible, the impact and the effect of poverty on the educational abilities and achievements of those children,” the judge wrote in a 179-page order.

Despite the legal victory for the plaintiffs in Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, the judge ruled against the rural districts on several other key parts of their 12-year-old case.

Following months of testimony and arguments on the poor conditions of school buildings and struggles with teacher quality in the rural areas, Judge Cooper found the districts’ campuses “safe and sufficient” and said that their teaching meets state constitutional muster.

Those conclusions did not greatly dampen the plaintiffs’ spirits.

“We now have a court order that says the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to these children, which is all we could hope for,” said Carl B. Epps III, a lawyer for the rural districts. He urged legislators to begin work immediately on early-childhood programs that could benefit rural students.

Preparing to Respond

Lawyers for both sides in the Abbeville case, named for a rural county that was an original plaintiff, said they were considering appeals to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which in 1999 overturned Judge Cooper’s dismissal of Abbeville and remanded it to his court. The ruling led to the 16-month trial, which was held in rural Clarendon County, the site of a 1949 lawsuit that was combined with other cases into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. (“Passions High as S.C. Finance Case Comes to a Close,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Requests for Judge Cooper to reconsider or clarify any part of his decision were due this week. Any appeal must be made to the state supreme court within 30 days of the ruling.

Bobby Stepp, a lawyer who argued much of the state’s case, said he was glad to see Judge Cooper side with the state on matters beyond early-childhood education. But the state still could appeal the ruling, he added.

“Our problem with [early-childhood interventions] isn’t whether those might be good programs,” he said. “It’s simply a matter of whether that is a constitutional duty.”

The ruling applies only to eight small districts that took the lead in the 2004 and 2005 trial, but any legislative remedy would affect dozens of other districts that were original plaintiffs in the case along with the state’s entire education system, Mr. Epps said.

State lawmakers were preparing their responses to the decision as they looked toward the start of their annual legislative session on Jan. 10.

Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, said the state should not appeal the ruling and should turn instead to improving education for young children.

“Whether it means better targeting educational resources that are already in the system or the possibility of additional funding, I am committed to working with legislators on both sides of the aisle in the coming session,” he said in a Dec. 30 statement.

State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum said she was working with the governor’s office and others to craft a plan that may include expanded classes for 3- and 4-year-olds, more family literacy and education, and efforts to improve the quality of private child-care providers.

“This could be a big opportunity for the rural districts,” said Ms. Tenenbaum, an elected Democrat. “The plaintiffs and the state now have the opportunity to give children a firm threshold, up through the 3rd grade.”

South Carolina may look to Oklahoma’s model for expanded early-childhood education centers, Ms. Tenenbuam said, which allows teachers from public schools to lead classes in private child care. The teachers must have state credentials, follow state academic standards, and report to school principals, she said. “This would not be a voucher program,” she said.

Former state Rep. Molly M. Spearman, now the executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, predicted that some expansion of preschool is likely. “It appears … that the legislature wants to act quickly and boldly to remedy the early-childhood problem,” said Ms. Spearman, a Republican former deputy state education superintendent who testified for the plaintiffs in Abbeville.

Attempts to reach several legislators were unsuccessful late last week.

Public or Private?

Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature should look to use private providers to help build a more substantial early-childhood education system in South Carolina, said Ed McMullen, the president of the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank in the state capital of Columbia.

“If there is going to be a statewide program at the 3-year-old and 4-year-old level, it’s going to be a public-private partnership where tax credits or scholarships would be awarded,” said Mr. McMullen, who expressed doubt that preschool really boosts youngsters’ achievement in poor communities.

Others will fight any sort of preschool or early-childhood education system that stresses the private sector.

“We are not interested in simply turning preschool programs over to the private day-care facilities of this state,” said Paul Krohne, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, which supported the plaintiff districts.

Mr. Epps, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said lawmakers must do more than expand preschool to meet Judge Cooper’s order. “It really is a cradle-through-the-3rd grade mandate, which in my view would include such things as parent education, parental outreach, and coordination with health-care agencies and mental-health-care agencies,” he said.

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