S.C. high court to hear arguments in 'minimally adequate' schools suit

COLUMBIA -- Today could be momentous for the state's public schools.

In front of five S.C. Supreme Court justices, lawyers for several poor, rural school districts and the Legislature will deliver competing arguments about whether state government is meeting its constitutional obligation to deliver a "minimally adequate" education.

At stake: The possibility the high court could direct the Legislature to change the way it funds public schools.

Only time and historians will be able to gauge whether Abbeville County School District (et al.) v. The State of South Carolina, the case that first entered the state court system 15 years ago, will join the ranks of other precedent-setting cases among them Brown v. Board of Education, a federal case that ended racial segregation of the nation's public schools.

South Carolinians with a bent for history know Brown had its origins in Summerton, where poor blacks in southern Clarendon County sued local leaders over the quality of education their children were receiving after World War II.

That case, Briggs v. Elliott, eventually merged with Brown and three others becoming a touchstone of the 20th century.

Among the 36 districts that will be represented today in Columbia is that same Summerton school system.

The irony was not lost on the schools' legal team, which invoked Brown during a trial that stretched from mid-2003 through 2004 the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling.

But it was chronic economic disparities, not racial discrimination, that was the focus of the trial.

Attorneys defending the state objected each time the plaintiffs' attorneys linked poverty and race.

Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr., now retired, ruled to appease both sides.

The case would not be about race, Cooper said, although he acknowledged it could not be ignored that a majority of the children in the plaintiff districts are minorities from families with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Few attended the 102-day civil trial held in Manning, where PowerPoint slides of charts and photographs were transmitted onto computer screens around Cooper's courtroom.

All but a handful of witnesses were educators, social scientists or government officials.

While the case was being argued before Cooper nearly five years ago, others were working to focus attention on the issue outside the courtroom.

Bud Ferillo, a Columbia public relations and political consultant, saw a hole in the story being told from the witness stand and filled it by filming a widely praised documentary, "Corridor of Shame."