COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A divided South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday for poor, rural school districts in a 21-year-old education funding lawsuit, saying legislators have failed to ensure that students receive the opportunity to succeed.
The long-awaited 3-2 ruling directs legislators and school district officials to work together to solve the state's "constitutional deficiency." It says the winners of the case are the children who represent South Carolina's future.
"There is no loser," concludes the opinion written by Chief Justice Jean Toal. The ruling "places before the parties a new opportunity ... leaning forward towards a conversation unencumbered by blame."
While requiring legislators to act, the ruling does not specify what they must do. Both sides must present their plan to the justices "within a reasonable time."
"Our state has given children in the most impoverished and rural portions of our state a chance of life," said Carl Epps, an attorney for the districts. "We look forward to working with the state so these children will indeed have the opportunities that a generation of poverty and lack of consistent state approach to education has caused."
Former Superintendent Jim Rex called the ruling long overdue but praised the Supreme Court's decision.
"Now the urgent question is what the state Legislature will do in response. Will they also be willing to do the right thing and find the financial resources to implement it?" said Rex, a Democrat who led the state education agency as the sides appealed to the high court.
The justices stressed that funding alone will not fix the problem.
Bobby Stepp, the Legislature's attorney, noted part of the blame was placed on the districts. The ruling scolded districts for putting a priority on athletics and spending too much on administrative costs. The opinion asks both sides to consider consolidating districts.
"Athletic facilities and other auxiliary initiatives received increased attention and funding, while students suffered in crumbling schools and toxic academic environments," Toal wrote.
GOP Superintendent Mick Zais responded to the ruling by reiterating his support for placing schools deemed as failing in a statewide, "transformation school district" that removes local control. That idea has gone nowhere in the Legislature.
The ruling comes two years after both sides re-argued their appeal of a December 2005 lower court ruling that gave each a partial victory. Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper had ordered the Legislature to invest more in early childhood education, saying not enough is done to help children overcome the obstacles of poverty. But Cooper ruled that teacher pay and buildings are safe and adequate. Each side appealed the part it lost.
The question was whether South Carolina schools provide all students access to a "minimally adequate education" — the constitutional standard the justices set in their 1999 ruling that sent the case to trial.
The Legislature's attorneys argued students' achievement can't be legislated, and that the success of some students shows opportunity exists.
But justices said such arguments "ring hollow" when compared to legislators' failure to analyze the issues preventing students' success. They also disagreed with the Legislature's contention that the case had become moot over time, as education inadequacies continue. They noted that state money is still distributed to districts based on laws passed in 1977 and 1984, referring to those complicated formulas as a fractured "funding scheme."
GOP Superintendent-elect Molly Spearman called fixing those formulas essential to any solution.
The opinion concluded that thousands of children have been denied opportunity "due to no more than historical accident."
Rex called it a "premeditated felony," adding that legislators have long known about the inequities, and while they've been fighting the lawsuit, the state has lost generations worth of potential.
"A child only has one childhood and in 21 years, that's at least three generations," he said.
Justices Don Beatty and Kaye Hearn agreed with Toal. Justices John Kittredge and Costa Pleicones disagreed. In the dissenting opinion, Kittredge said wrote that while he finds much to cheer about in the decision, the court has overstepped its bounds by acting as a "super-legislature."