When I served as staff in the justice ministries in the United Church of Christ, we appointed a five-year national task force that met two or three times every year to visit public schools. Mary Grant, a valued member of that task force, had grown up in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and at every meeting she would report on what was happening in the South Carolina school funding case, Abbeville vs. South Carolina. Mary Grant joined the task force in 2000, after the Abbeville case had already been in South Carolina’s courts for seven years. She died in February of 2005, just as our task force was concluding its work. The task force’s final report was dedicated to her and her contributions. Mary Grant committed her life to the struggle for civil rights for poor, black children, and especially to the children living in what has been called South Carolina’s “corridor of shame”—29 rural school districts that filed the original 1993 Abbeville case, districts located along the route of Interstate 95 in the eastern part of the state. Sadly she did not live to see the case resolved last Wednesday in favor of the plaintiff school districts—twenty-one years after the lawsuit was originally filed.
According to Carolyn Click and Dawn Hinshaw, writing for the Myrtle Beach Sun News, the Abbeville lawsuit was filed on November 2, 1993. The lawsuit was filed on the claim that the 1977 formula the Legislature uses to distribute money for education is unfair to rural and poor schools. After ten years of motions to dismiss and appeals, on July 28, 2003, attorneys for the plaintiff school districts and the state began oral arguments. In 2012, Education South Carolina reported: “After a flurry of motions and filings, the circuit court then held 102 days of trial, starting in July 2003 and ending in December 2004. It heard 102 witnesses in person or by deposition, which generated a 23,100-page transcript. Some 4,400 documents were received in evidence. A year later, state Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper essentially ruled that the state provided a minimally-adequate education to students in the poor districts. But Cooper… required the state to fund early childhood intervention programs to satisfy constitutional requirements under the ‘minimally adequate’ standard.” (During an earlier phase of the case, in 1999, before remanding the original case to a lower court for reconsideration, the state supreme court had defined a standard for “minimum adequate education” which included the ability to read, write and speak the English language, and the knowledge of mathematics and physical science; a fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems and of history and governmental processes; and academic and vocational skills.)
Not satisfied with the 2003 decision, both the plaintiffs and the state filed appeals, and the case landed with the South Carolina Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments beginning on June 25, 2008.
Last Wednesday, November 12, 2014, in a 3-2 split decision, Chief Justice Jean Toal found in favor of the plaintiff school districts. The legislature is charged with designing a remedy: “The General Assembly is primarily responsible for school finance reform… In light of this sacrosanct principle, we refuse to provide the General Assembly with a specific solution to the constitutional violation.” However, Justice Toal’s decision retains jurisdiction, which means the Supreme Court will remain involved—to ensure that a remedy is designed.
Justice Toal considers whether changes in funding and educational programs in all the years since the case was filed render the case irrelevant to today’s realities. Her decision finds that, “South Carolina’s educational funding scheme is a fractured formula denying students in the Plaintiff Districts the constitutionally required opportunity.” “The measurable inputs and outputs show that the Defendants have failed to provide students in the Plaintiff Districts the requisite constitutional opportunity. Inadequate transportation fails to convey children to school or home in a manner conducive to even minimal academic achievement. Students in the Plaintiff Districts receive instruction in many cases from a corps of unprepared teachers. Students in these districts are grouped by economic class into what amounts to no more than educational ghettos…. Large percentages of the students in the Plaintiff Districts—over half in some instances—are unable to meet minimal benchmarks on standardized tests, but are nonetheless pushed through the system to ‘graduate.’ While the Defendants and the dissent point to the amount of spending in the Plaintiff Districts, this spending fails to provide students with the opportunity to obtain a minimally adequate education.”
Coincidentally, last Thursday, in the same week as the Abbeville Decision was announced, the Rev. John Thomas, retired president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, published his weekly blog, this week on the injustices of inequitably distributed and inadequate school finance. “While the one percent has rebounded in spectacular fashion from the impact of the Great Recession, much of America is still suffering its effects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the funding of our public schools. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveals that thirty states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-2015 school year than they did before the recession hit. In fourteen of those states the reduction in spending per student between 2008-2015, adjusted for inflation, is over 10 percent.”
I am certain that the Rev. Thomas remembers Mary Grant and her commitment to a bright future for the students in South Carolina’s corridor of shame. The long delayed decision in Abbeville vs. South Carolina and the overall decrease in American funding for public education since 2008 are symptomatic of a deep and very troubling problem in a society whose state school funding formulas continue to ensure that more public money is spent on the education of wealthy children and less on children living in poverty.
For an excellent analysis of this decision, check out Molly Hunter’s update from the Education Law Center.