Supreme Court ruling on school funding encourages action on issues legislators loath to touch



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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — In ruling that South Carolina's educational system is broken and fails to provide every child the opportunity to succeed in school, the state's Supreme Court provided no instruction for how officials and legislators should correct that.

The justices placed blame on both legislators and school officials and told them it was their collective job to fix the system. While the ruling mandated no particular method for changing it, it encouraged that a solution include overhauling the state's piecemeal funding system and consolidating districts.

Those happen to be issues legislators have long been loath to touch, due to concerns over which districts lose in a funding overhaul and constituents' emotional ties to their local schools.

Whether the ruling ends what Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, calls "legislative inertia" remains to be seen. The Nov. 12 order gave legislators and district officials a "reasonable time" to collectively figure out what must be done. A resolution is not expected next year.

Senate Education Chairman John Courson, R-Columbia, jokingly said the court's guidance is so ambiguous that 21 years could be considered a "reasonable" timeframe to answer a ruling on a 21-year-old case.

"It's going to take some time if it's done right," said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia. "It will take a huge, huge, bipartisan effort."

The order called the state's education funding system an outdated and fractured "scheme" that denies opportunities to students in poor, rural schools that sued the state in 1993. Issues cited include an inability to attract and keep good teachers and inadequate busing.

It notes that laws passed in 1977 and 1984 remain the basis for how state money is distributed to districts.

Setzler said the 2014-15 budget took a step forward by adding a "weighting" for poverty, translating to an additional $97 million spent on students who qualify for free meals. The weighting was adopted by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley as a key piece of her education plan, which the Legislature approved. But it kept the underlying formulas intact.

Haley pledges to introduce a second round of education reform proposals in January but has given no indication on what that might include.

A proposal to be re-introduced by Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, has the backing of the state School Boards Association and Superintendent-elect Molly Spearman.

Horne's plan would fund schools through a new, statewide property tax. The uniform millage would roll back local property taxes on businesses and vehicles across the state while allowing rural districts with little tax base to benefit from industry elsewhere. Distribution would be simplified, with districts receiving money based on their student population. But the calculations would still provide more for certain students, such as for poor, gifted, and special needs.

Previous versions of the idea have gone nowhere.

Horne acknowledges it results in winners and losers. But her plan calls for "holding harmless" districts that would otherwise lose money, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Horne said she's waiting on estimates from state financial advisers for a more precise figure.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said a hold-harmless provision is essential to approval of any funding overhaul; otherwise, legislators from districts that face cuts will fight it.

"One thing we don't want to do in raising poor districts is hurt the better districts," said Hayes, chairman of the Senate K-12 subcommittee.

While the court ruled in districts' favor, it also chastised them for diverting money from the classroom to athletics and administration. The order specifically scolded district officials for not exploring consolidation themselves.

They "have opted for a course of self-preservation, placing all blame for the blighted state of education in their districts at the feet" of the Legislature, wrote Chief Justice Jean Toal.

Some consolidation has occurred. South Carolina has 83 school districts in 46 counties, down from 92 a decade ago. Even while saying district size "must be examined," the order suggests a one-district-per-county model is not the answer. It points to a report that says small, rural districts often don't see a large cost savings when consolidated because of the scattered student population. It also gives as an example Allendale County, a single district of less than 1,250 students that has long performed poorly.

The order does invite "cross-county consolidation."

But the Legislature appears highly unlikely to pursue that. Most legislators, as well as the School Boards Association, maintain that consolidation must be sought by the community, not forced by law.

Hayes said the Legislature can encourage consolidation through incentives.

"It's better for people to realize and ask," he said.

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