OTHER VIEWS: Verdict in school case might fix a few problems

  • Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 5:49 p.m.

FLORENCE — The South Carolina Supreme Court may finally deliver a verdict this year in the 19-year-old Abbeville Schools vs. South Carolina case that spawned the “Corridor of Shame” documentary and kept a generation of lawyers employed.

It’s about time, but will a decision really make any difference?

The case, which at one time included more than a third of South Carolina’s public school districts among the plaintiffs, is about equity in school funding and opportunity. The gist of the case is that the state has not fulfilled its responsibilities to deliver a “minimally adequate” education to all children when it failed to provide extra funding for poor districts. The theory is that poor districts don’t need just the same state funding as wealthy districts; they need more because they cannot raise the local funds – mostly through property taxes – needed to make up the difference.

The argument makes some sense – if one concedes that more money always buys better educational performance. But not everyone agrees with that point.

And even if they did, the case is confusing because there is no certain measure of “adequate” nor a perfect formula for directing the deployment of state funds. What’s more, the landscape is very different from when the suit was filed in 1993. Some of the districts have seen some funding improvements, and the Great Recession has changed the way the state funds schools – as well as just about everything else. State formulas put in place 30 and 40 years ago have been rendered useless by the current economic situation.

The ruling now focuses on just eight districts, three of which are in the Pee Dee. Weirdly, the Abbeville district is no longer a key part of the suit, though it still bears that name. The districts at the heart of the matter now are: Allendale, Dillon 4, Florence 4 (Timmonsville) Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3. Marion 7, the schools in the southern part of the county, is now part of a consolidated Marion County – a changed situation within the case’s overall changes.

The original lower court decision that brought the case to the Supreme Court was something of a mess. The judge there eventually ruled that the state had provided minimally adequate education – not exactly a high standard – in all areas except preschool education.

That sounded like a call to create a statewide 4K – or younger – program, but since the case has been on appeal to the higher court for five years, whatever clarity existed then no longer does.

The case was reargued, with new conditions taken into account, in September. A ruling could pop out of the court’s oven at almost any time.

Whatever the court says is likely to create ripples in state government, but an adverse ruling against the state could really upset the apple cart. One prominent senator opined last week that such a ruling could leave the legislature in session “until Thanksgiving.”

Notably, he did not specify Thanksgiving of 2013.

The funding equity question is astonishingly complex. To imagine that the court, or the state, might address that in any meaningful way stretches credibility to the breaking point.

But some good might come out of the ruling all the same. South Carolina almost certainly isn’t addressing school funding in an adequate manner – most state-by-state funding comparisons put South Carolina in the middle of the pack – and the method used to determine the annual amounts is a dictionary-perfect description of the term “Byzantine.” The problems inherent in this situation are obvious to most. But despite that, it’s unlikely the state would change the scope, or the manner, of school funding without some outside impetus.

A final, immutable ruling in the Abbeville case might just serve that role, forcing the state’s hand on a critical matter.

That might not be worth a 19-year wait, but it would be worth something.

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