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November 14, 2014

On November 12, 2014, in Abbeville County Sch. Dist. v. State (Abbeville II), the South Carolina Supreme Court declared that "South Carolina's education funding scheme is a fractured formula denying students ... the constitutionally required opportunity."

The Court questioned "the prudence of creating school districts filled with students of the most disadvantaged socioeconomic background, exposing students in those school districts to substandard educational inputs, and then maintaining that nothing can be done."

The Court also held that, "our State's education system fails to provide school districts with the resources necessary to meet the minimally-adequate standard," and "the cost of the educational package in South Carolina is based on a convergence of outmoded and outdated policy considerations that fail the students of the Plaintiff Districts." (emphasis in original)

Responding to the Court's ruling, co-counsel for the plaintiff school districts, Laura Callaway Hart, of Duff, White & Turner, LLC, said, "We are grateful that the South Carolina Supreme Court recognizes that all children, no matter where they live or how much money their parents have, must have access to meaningful opportunities to learn in school. We look forward to working with our state government on crafting an effective means of delivering those opportunities to them so that they will grow into adults who are productive and can contribute in positive ways to our state. As Chief Justice Toal wrote in the opinion, 'there is no loser' in this case. We have all won an important victory."

The Court reviewed the record from the trial and found that the state's teaching quality and certification regime led to: many uncertified and "substandard" certified teachers; high teacher turnover; and, even teachers without college degrees teaching core courses, such as math and science. Substandard certification is available to teachers unable "to meet minimal teaching-competency standards."

The Court also concluded that poverty and poor transportation created major barriers to learning for students in the plaintiff districts. Evidence presented by both the Plaintiff Districts and the Defendants argued that poverty accounts for much of the shortfall in learning and test scores, and other expert analysis demonstrated that poverty caused many children to be behind in skills needed for school success even before their schooling begins. The record also showed two-hour bus rides, each way, and the Court held that "inadequate transportation fails to convey children to school or home in a manner conducive to even minimal academic achievement."

In its overall conclusion, the Court criticized the State Defendants:

During this case the Defendants asserted that achievement may not be legislated and that this Court could not possibly review the Plaintiff Districts' claims ... . These arguments ring hollow when compared to the Defendants' failure to comprehensively analyze the troubling issues preventing educational opportunity in the Plaintiff Districts.

Although the Court noted that the General Assembly has primary responsibility to cure the constitutional deficiency, it also said that its findings present "a new opportunity" to the parties to work together.

Moreover, the Court retained jurisdiction and directed both plaintiffs and 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." Similar to the Washington Supreme Court in the McCleary case, the Court gave 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."

Interestingly, the Court wrote that "the Defendants may find the remedies fashioned by other states' courts instructive," explaining briefly the cost- and needs-driven remedies ordered by other state high courts, in CFE v State of New York (CFE II) and Campbell County v. State of Wyoming.

Amici in this appeal included the League of Women Voters of SC and the SC Conference of the NAACP, jointly, in a brief arguing for high quality preschool and written by Education Law Center (ELC).

Years earlier, in Abbeville I, the South Carolina Supreme Court denied the state's motion to dismiss because plaintiffs had stated a valid claim under the state constitution's education clause, which the Court interpreted to mean that the legislature must provide children with a "minimally adequate education." This case then went to trial. 

The trial court ruled that the state's failure to develop and fund early education intervention programs through at least grade 3 denied plaintiff schoolchildren their right to a minimally adequate education. But, the trial court denied plaintiffs' requested findings regarding quality teaching, which the Supreme Court has now overruled.

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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