South Carolina Supreme Court Finds For Plaintiffs After Long Delay

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK, South Carolina, South Carolina Litigation

More than six years after oral argument had been held regarding the lower court’s decision based on a trial that concluded in 2004, the South Carolina Supreme Court last week upheld that part of the trial court’s decision that mandated early childhood education for students from poverty backgrounds; it also substantially modified in plaintiffs’ favor that part of the trial judge’s decision that dismissed plaintiffs’ claims involving “inputs” for K-12 programs such as teacher quality and, inadequate transportation.  Abbeville Co Sch. Dist. v. State of South Carolina. The decision was written by Chief Justice Toal, who was joined by two other justices; two justices filed a dissenting opinion, arguing that the majority had improperly violated separation of powers precepts.

The Court dealt with the obvious mootness issue by holding that although many of the facts had changed over the past decade, “the Defendants have not substantially changed the baseline funding mechanisms. Thus, we find the Plaintiff Districts may validly argue that the overall funding scheme continues to disadvantage them in the same fundamental way.” Throughout the decision, the Court cited evidence from both the original trial and from the re-argument the Court had convened in 2012 to consider the current state of affairs.

In regard to transportation, the Court cited examples of elementary school children in the small rural districts travelling more than 4 hours per day to and from school in antiquated buses that frequently broke down. Regarding teacher quality, it specifically held that the trial court’s failure to find a relationship between student achievement and the poor quality of teachers in the plaintiff districts, 38% of whom were uncertified or held substandard certifications, to be “largely erroneous.”  The Court also cited output statistics indicating the continued failure of students in the Plaintiff districts to meet state proficiency standards, although the Court also acknowledged that graduation rates had substantially improved.

The Court’s remedy order was innovative. It deferred to the legislature’s policy making prerogatives to develop specific solutions to the problems it had identified, but it discussed in some detail as “particularly instructive” the remedies courts in New York and Wyoming had developed in similar circumstances; in both of these cases, CFE v. State of New York and Campbell Co Sch. District v. State of Wyoming, the courts had emphasized the importance of cost studies as part of  the remedy. The Court also indicated that the defendants and the small rural plaintiff districts must consider the benefits of consolidation to cut administrative costs. The parties were directed to reappear before the Court “within a reasonable time” to present a plan to address the constitutional violations, and it gave “leave to the parties to suggest to the Court precisely how to proceed…[and to suggest] specific, planned remedial measures.”

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