Judge: State provides OK funding for preschool

Retired Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. won't reconsider his ruling in a long-running dispute over school funding.

That leaves poor, rural school systems faced with deciding where to turn next -- the Legislature they sued or the state Supreme Court.

Cooper on Thursday affirmed his December 2005 findings that South Carolina provides its public school students a "minimally adequate education" but should do more to offer help to children from the time they are born until they reach the third grade.

Both the state and the plaintiff districts asked that the judge reconsider his ruling. He took more than a year to do so.

The lawsuit questioned the fairness of how the state pays for the education of an estimated 132,000 children who attend schools in 36 districts that struggle academically and financially.

He suggested in his latest ruling that the plaintiffs' remedy lies with the Legislature and not the courts. Some school representatives, however, said they were inclined to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"In the final analysis, the responsibility rests, as it should, upon the shoulders of the elected representatives of the people of South Carolina, to decide whether the educational futures of the (state's) children ... will rest upon the constitutional floor established by the court, or upon a higher level."

Cooper weighed whether South Carolina meets its constitutional obligation, as defined by a 1999 state Supreme Court decision, to furnish each child an opportunity to receive a "minimally adequate education."

Cooper said that high court ruling set a standard that "created a 'constitutional floor' below which the educational processes of the state could not sink."

"As difficult as it may be to understand," the judge wrote, "this case has never been about what is best for the children of the state, or what programs, facilities and resources the court might wish were available to the children of our state."

Bobby Stepp, a Columbia attorney who defended the Legislature said his clients have no intention of appealing.

"It's time for the discussion of education policy to be fully returned to the General Assembly," he said.

John Kirby, superintendent of the Latta school system in Dillon County, will urge his colleagues in the other 35 districts to appeal.

"It's worth every ounce of strength in every (person) involved in this case to go the distance. We're talking about the lives of kids," said Kirby, Dillon 3's superintendent since 1990.

Rick Reames, director of the Pee Dee Education Center, which was a catalyst for filing the original lawsuit, said he hopes to organize a summit of school leaders to make a decision prior to schools' reopening in August.

"I'm not surprised by this ruling," Reames said. The judge "heard this case over a long period of time, and he made a ruling based on the law and the constitution. I'm disappointed, but I didn't fully expect him to change those rulings."

Lexington 4 superintendent Frank Vail, who encouraged his board to sign on as a plaintiff district in 1993, took issue with Cooper's conclusions.

"The constitutional floor of 'minimally adequate' is really shameful for our state," Vail said.

Carl Epps, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, was "deeply disappointed" by Cooper's decision because "students who are moving through system right now didn't have access to the early childhood intervention that Judge Cooper said is needed, and those youngsters have no redress."

State Education Superintendent Jim Rex said he had mixed feelings about whether the local districts should appeal.

Rex acknowledged schools that sued are frustrated by Cooper's decision, but worried that continuing a court fight could be a distraction.

"For years, this interminable lawsuit has been an excuse for inaction," Rex said.

Lawyers on both sides asked Cooper in April 2006 to reconsider his findings that the Legislature treats all public school systems fairly with its funding policies but could do more to help pre-schoolers.

Cooper presided over a 16-month trial that saw more than 100 witnesses testify about conditions of South Carolina's rural schools, many of them along the I-95 corridor.

The civil trial ran from July 2003 through December 2004.

Since then, the Legislature has allocated money to support expansion of full-day 4-year-old kindergarten in the districts suing the state, but balked this year at expanding the program statewide.