High Court to revisit funding for rural schools

COLUMBIA -- The S.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider for a second time whether the state's rural communities inherently deserve more money to underwrite public schools.

The case -- pitting 36 of South Carolina's poorest school systems against the state Legislature -- has thrust the term "minimally adequate education" into the national spotlight, attracting interest from education advocates and presidential candidates alike.

Yet that attention, along with millions in legal fees and 15 years in state courts, has not resolved the issue.

Lawyers representing plaintiff districts want the high court to tell the Legislature that schools in poor, rural areas need more state help to put students on the same academic footing as peers in wealthier districts.

The Supreme Court initially ruled in April 1999 that the state government's money distribution policy -- based on such factors as enrollment, a student's age and academic prowess -- treats school districts fairly.

Oral arguments this week will focus on what was left unresolved from that ruling: whether the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility of providing all children access to a minimally adequate education.

"It's a terrible term to use," said superintendent Steve Laird of Dillon 1, one of the plaintiff districts. "I don't think we would accept a minimally adequate health-care system. We ought to be shooting for something better than that."

Columbia attorney Bobby Stepp, who has defended the state since the high court's first ruling, acknowledged: "It is time to answer the question whether students in South Carolina have the opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education once and for all."

"There is no disagreement between the parties about the importance of education," Stepp said, "but education policy should be made in the General Assembly by elected representatives of the people."

Not fair enough?

Laird was superintendent of Lake View schools for only two years when his small district and others in eastern South Carolina first sued state government in 1993.

They were frustrated about paying a larger proportion of employee pension benefits, which diverted local money from property taxes used to pay for instruction.

The case evolved into a debate over whether the Legislature's formula for doling out money to public schools was equitable given the challenges the plaintiff districts must overcome in educating students living in poverty.

The 1999 Supreme Court decision led to a protracted 16-month trial about the meaning of minimally adequate education.

Judge Thomas Cooper Jr., now retired, concluded in December 2005 that the state does enough to support local public schools and their upkeep. But he also suggested state policymakers should consider spending money to help preschool-age children be better prepared for kindergarten.

Both sides claimed a partial victory -- which led to this week's appeal.

Taxpayers have paid an estimated $6.7 million in legal fees, while the plaintiffs' attorneys estimate their donated time is worth another $7.73 million.

Since Cooper's 2005 ruling, lawmakers have since taken two steps to change how they fund public schools.

The state now provides money to underwrite full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds in the plaintiff districts. And the Legislature raised the state sales tax by a penny to replace annual property tax revenue from owner-occupied homes, which are now exempt from that levy.

Carl Epps, who took on the plaintiffs' case in 1993, was encouraged the Legislature created pre-school programs for children in poor, rural communities.

Nevertheless, Epps said, "Our children, the state's neediest, are not receiving that opportunity (to receive a minimally adequate education) because our state does not fund teachers, infrastructure, and instruction sufficient to reach them."

Cooper's ruling, Epps said, "rightfully protected the youngest of these vulnerable children. But we respectfully believe (he) was wrong in stopping there."

Laird said last week that neighboring Horry County lured away two of his special-education teachers with a boost in pay and bonuses he was told are worth between $15,000 and $20,000.

"How can we compete with that?" he asked.

The Legislature approved a new budget with about $3 billion in state money for K-12 education. Throw in another $700 million in federal aid, and that's a $3.7 billion enterprise for the 2008-2009 academic year -- more than double the $1.8 billion being spent on public schools in 1993.

While some schools in the plaintiff districts have gotten special funding to address specific issues over the years, those school systems by and large have not benefited from larger state education budgets.

Tracking the case

South Carolina is among two dozen or more states where courts have been asked to referee disputes about how public schools are funded.

Among those watching this week's South Carolina proceedings will be attorney Michael Rebell, director of the ACCESS Network, which tracks school finance disputes around the nation.

"We consider it a really important case because the judge there concentrated on what the poor kids in rural districts need for them to have any realistic chance to get an education," Rebell said.

"How can you say these kids who come from impoverished rural areas have any chance of getting a competitive education and enter the job market?" Rebell said. "School is the main place you get that opportunity."

Last week, state Superintendent Jim Rex called on educators to lobby for wholesale changes in the way the state underwrites its public schools.

"Our K-12 funding system is part of a statewide tax structure that's in desperate need of comprehensive repair," Rex said. "Rather than fixing it, we've tinkered with piecemeal changes that make the system more complex, more unbalanced and less understandable."