Carolyn Van Houten for Al Jazeera America

SC court rules state failed to provide adequate education at some schools

In 1993, 36 rural, poor, mostly black school districts sued South Carolina for failing to provide adequate education

South Carolina has failed to provide adequate resources for students at public schools in impoverished rural school districts, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled, bringing to a close a legal fight between the state and its educators that has languished for more than 20 years.

The high court, in a 3-2 vote announced Wednesday, calls for the state to overhaul its public school system and improve educational resources in the “Corridor of Shame” — the nickname for the rural, impoverished school districts along Interstate 95 with dilapidated and poorly performing schools. The students at the schools are mostly African-American. The decision, however, stops short of recommending just how lawmakers should improve the school system — a detail some observers say will create a daunting burden for a General Assembly criticized by many as hostile to reform.

In 1993, 36 of the state’s poorest rural school districts sued South Carolina for failing to provide “a minimally adequate education” for its students. The case — Abbeville County School District vs. the State of South Carolina — is the longest trial in the state’s history. It has appeared before the state’s Supreme Court twice, with two rounds of oral arguments.

“It has been so long. We have gone through so much. I didn’t think we’d ever hear anything,” said D. Ray Rogers, superintendent of Dillon School District 4, immediately after news of the court’s decision. His district is one of the original plaintiff districts in the case.

The community is elated, “but they don’t know what they are elated about,” he said. “What does this mean? When will we know? Right now, I know somebody will be sitting down to do some talking, because a very strong court said, ‘You will.’” 

Rogers’ elation is tempered, he said, by the fact that not all state lawmakers will be happy with the court’s decision. “And that’s the problem,” he said. Lawmakers made promises but never sent the check, he said, which led the rural school districts to sue.

“We felt like it wasn’t right for a child that was born in Dillon, South Carolina, not to have the same thing as one born in more affluent neighborhoods,” he said.

“This is really a landmark decision,” said lead plaintiff attorney Carl Epps. “There are no losers in this case.”

“[The court] fashioned a remedy by telling the state along with the plaintiff districts to come up with a system, including funding, that will enable these children to have an opportunity in life,” he said. “That’s exactly what I had hoped the court would do, because it’s not in a position of dictating everything that should happen in education.”

One way to look at it, he said, is as a clean slate.

“This decision gives the districts tremendous power and voice to help develop a program that fills their needs. They had no voice before the decision, and now they have one,” Epps said.

The court was blunt in its assessment, saying that “there is a clear disconnect between the inputs and outputs” of the school system and that the state has failed its constitutional duty to insure children “receive the requisite educational opportunity.”

South Carolina's Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The “Corridor of Shame” case, as it has become widely known, has illuminated the undercurrent of race and its intersection with poverty.

The court, however, would not hear arguments on racial discrimination in the case.

“The plaintiff districts presented much of this case as a manipulative political argument, framing the dispute within some of our state’s most disturbing historical images and couching this case’s most meaningful aspects in conventions which deny our progress. This approach simultaneously ignores their own actions in helping to create devastating metrics and outcomes,” read the majority opinion.

“Thousands of South Carolina’s schoolchildren — the quintessential future of our state — have been denied this opportunity due to no more than historical accident,” it read.

“I don’t think this court has any great interest in getting into the nuts and bolts of what should happen from this point forward. It has, in effect, laid down a challenge. It has spoken real truth. But the issue is going to be how do people, the political leaders, respond to this,” said Hayes Mizell, a senior distinguished fellow at Learning Forward, a professional development organization for K–12 teachers.

It is possible to read the court decision as mandating what should be a significant overhaul of the public school system. “That is a challenge that is very big for a General Assembly that, quite frankly, does not embrace such large challenges very well,” Mizell said.

Thinking of the public school system in conventional terms could hamper meaningful reform, he said. “This seems to call for something more than that,” he said.

And, he added, it’s going to take some time.

Rogers, for one, doesn’t expect anything to advance until well after the General Assembly resumes in January. “July 1 of 2015, I feel like will be the earliest we see anything advance,” he said.

“I think they’re going to have to find some common ground on needs and per-pupil expenditures across the state,” he said. Lawmakers are going to have to retool budgets or supplement certain areas, and plaintiff school districts may be asked to make concessions such as consolidation, he said.

“Whatever is best for the kids and the teachers — I don’t think anyone’s afraid of that,” Rogers said. “We have been afraid of not having enough money to operate.”

He said he hopes the court’s decision will translate into increased borrowing power for much needed construction projects that would update aging school buildings for his district’s youngest students.

“We’re hoping, very soon, something will happen, because we’ve lost 21 years of time,” he said.

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