It’s not as if the S.C. General Assembly learned only a year ago that the state was doing a woefully inadequate job of providing an education to many of its children.
Last November, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of poor school districts that had sued the state for adequate funding. The court directed legislators and school district officials to work together to fix the state’s antiquated system, saying that both sides must present their plan to justices “within a reasonable time.”
Then, in September, the high court set compliance deadlines, giving lawmakers until Feb. 1 to develop a plan to present to the court. Instead, leaders in both the House and Senate sent a joint letter to Chief Justice Jean Toal saying the Legislature would ignore the deadlines and pursue its own remedy.
And on Monday, the Legislature officially asked the court to withdraw its timeline for fixing the public education system. And even if the court does not accede to that request, legislative leaders said they would follow their own path regardless.
On its face, the court’s insistence on a Nov. 1 deadline for coming up with a solution to this intractable problem only a year after issuing its ruling might seem unfair. But that would require us to ignore the fact that this lawsuit was filed 22 years ago and that various other legislative leaders have spent most of that time battling the lawsuit and seeking to avoid any legal responsibility for fixing a broken education system.
House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman jointly filed a petition asking the court to reject its own order, arguing that the Feb. 1 deadline is arbitrary and impossible to meet. They also claim the order, which requires the creation of a three-person expert panel to oversee the process, unconstitutionally usurps the authority of lawmakers.
Yes, the deadline is arbitrary. And perhaps the Legislature is justified in raising the constitutional questions regarding which branch holds the authority to make decisions regarding education funding.
But the larger question is why the Legislature still is playing the role of antagonist, still using legal maneuvers to avoid accountability. In other words, why weren’t lawmakers prepared to come up with even an outline for a potential plan once the court finally ruled on this case a year ago?
We understand the complicated nature of shepherding bills through both houses of the Legislature, especially in a state where a single senator can block a bill indefinitely and where significant legislation is rarely passed until the last week of the session, if at all. Legislative leaders offer a reasonable argument that passing a school reform bill through the House and Senate by Feb. 1, just three weeks into the legislative session, would be practically impossible.
It is important to get the plan right the first time. We don’t need another piecemeal solution that doesn’t address the real problem of inadequate educational opportunities for many children living in some 40 poor, rural school districts. Nonetheless, the continued foot-dragging is a further indictment of the Legislature’s leadership, further evidence that it has willfully ignored this problem for decades.
Both Leatherman and Lucas appointed study committees earlier this year to devise a reform plan. But Lucas set a Jan. 12 deadline for the report from his committee.
Lawmakers need to act with more urgency. Legislative leaders still are arguing about deadlines when the need to act has been apparent for decades.
As the high court ruled, the state has not only a moral responsibility but also a constitutional duty to ensure that every child in the state has access to an adequate education – and preferably an education that is more than merely adequate. And even without that mandate, the necessity of educating our children for the welfare and stability of the entire state should have been obvious.
The Legislature’s efforts to get around deadlines and buy more time to come up with a plan may be practical. But they come after more than two decades of legal maneuvering to avoid doing what is right and necessary for our children.
How many more children in those neglected districts will lose the chance at a decent education before our lawmakers decide to act?