South Carolina Supreme Court rehears oral arguments in school funding suit after four-year silence

As reported in The State, the five justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court has recently heard oral arguments addressing several issues, including teacher quality, school district sizes, school bus numbers, the percentage of a district’s budget that goes to administrators’ salaries, and contemplated whether the court should set its own standards for the state’s public education system. The oral arguments were the latest chapter in a 20-year lawsuit brought by some of the state’s poorest school districts.

Attorney Bobby Stepp, who is representing the South Carolina Legislature, told the justices there is no reason for them to interfere with public education, especially since the Constitution already requires a “minimally adequate education” – a standard he said is being met. “Judges are not experts in education; the court systems are not policymakers; courts don’t sit as super school boards,” Stepp argued.

A decision favoring the school districts could require the Legislature to take action on state school policies and possibly spend more money on public education. According to attorney Carl Epps, who represents the school districts, the decision is easy: too many basic standards in specific areas are going begging in the state’s poorer districts, and the Legislature needs to act.

Many children spend hours on school buses because small districts do not have enough buses, Epps said. Many teachers in poor districts are unqualified, with degrees from substandard teacher colleges, he said.

During the oral arguments, both judges and attorneys seemed to agree on one thing – that in poorer counties, public education is often far below where it should be. Districts statewide get a per-pupil annual allotment. Wealthier districts – those with more jobs and more-expensive homes – can supplement the state’s funds with more property tax money than the poorer districts.

Epps and his colleague Steve Morrison told the justices that earlier this year, Washington state’s supreme court found that state’s educational system did not meet standards. That decision offers a model for what South Carolina’s high court should do, they said.

The arguments continue a case that began in 1993, when attorneys representing 29 school districts filed suit against the state in Lee County, contending that the state’s education funding formula was unfair because it did not give enough to poor, rural school districts to pay employee benefit costs.

Source:  The State, 9/19/12, By John Monk

[Editor's Note: Like most school funding suits, this case, Abbeville County School District  v. State of South Carolina, has a lengthy history. In a June 2012 Editor's Note, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Post and Courier, which reported that the South Carolina Supreme Court had broken a nearly four-year silence in this state’s landmark school funding lawsuit, but the justices did not appear to be any closer to making a decision at that time. Not having said a word since oral arguments in 2008, the Court issued an order on May 23, 2012 directing attorneys to prepare to re-argue the case this fall. The brief summary contains a link to NSBA's amicus brief that was filed in support of the school districts.]

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