COLUMBIA, S.C. — After 24 years, a landmark lawsuit over education funding in South Carolina has come to an end but the debate has not, as one Supreme Court justice said that to continue the case would be a “gross oversight of judicial power,” but another accused the court of losing its will.
A 3-2 vote by the state’s highest court and an order signed Friday ended the legal case that examined whether the Legislature provides enough money and support for poor and rural schools. It also brought the phrase “minimally adequate education” to the forefront and led to a documentary called “Corridor of Shame.”
The order was written by Associate Justice John Kittredge, who was on the losing side in 2014 when the court decided to continue oversight. The two judges who agreed with Kittredge were both elected to the court by lawmakers since that ruling three years ago.
Lawmakers have increased money for schools and taken other initiatives to make sure students in poorer districts have the same opportunities as those in richer, more urban districts, Kittredge wrote.
Chief Justice Don Beatty dissented. Three years ago he was on the winning side that called for more oversight. Beatty said in his dissent that the Legislature should at least finish a study of South Carolina’s school funding formula, which is based on laws more than 30 years old.
“Unfortunately, our Court has lost the will to do even the minimal amount necessary to avoid becoming complicit actors in the deprivation of a minimally adequate education to South Carolina’s children,” Beatty wrote.
Thirty-three of South Carolina’s roughly 80 traditional school districts remained in the suit, and they wanted the Supreme Court to set a deadline for tangible progress as has been done in other states, attorney Carl Epps said. They are disappointed that the 24-year court fight is over, he said.
“Children will continue to flounder and have little chance at success,” Epps said Monday.
The Supreme Court coined the phrase “minimally adequate education” in a 1999 ruling, and it immediately bothered many people who thought South Carolina should aspire to being more than adequate at something as important as public education.
In 2005, producer and director Bud Ferillo released the “Corridor of Shame” documentary about conditions at South Carolina’s schools. It continues to resonate so much that Gov. Henry McMaster is currently in the middle of a tour of some of the schools seen in the film to push for his ideas on education reform.
House Speaker Jay Lucas said he’s glad the court’s oversight of lawmakers is over and they will continue their work to improve the education system.
“The General Assembly can now focus solely on our children’s education needs rather than compliance with the arbitrary standard” of the Supreme Court, the Hartsville Republican said in a statement.
Democratic Rep. Russell Ott said on Twitter that the decision sent the wrong message that lawmakers have narrowed the funding gap.
“There are still kids in rural SC with no choice but to attend schools that were an embarrassment 20 years ago & remain that way today,” Ott wrote.