Education

On Friday, the South Carolina Supreme Court vacated a landmark decision that held the state accountable for poor, failing schools.

In 2014, the court ruled 3-2 in a 21-year-old lawsuit, Abbeville et al. vs. the State of South Carolina, that the state failed to provide a “minimally adequate” education to poor and rural school districts.

Since then, the General Assembly has been tasked with fixing the funding process for poor schools, with no clear timeline.

In steps to address the problem, the state has conducted facilities studies of plaintiff districts and provided $55.8 million for capital improvement projects.

In a 3-2 decision Friday, the state Supreme Court voted to vacate its order in the Abbeville lawsuit.

The opinion of Justice John Kittredge, one of the dissenting justices in the original lawsuit, was the basis behind the order to vacate. The two justices who voted in favor of the order to vacate — John Cannon Few and George James Jr. — are new to their seats, having been appointed in 2016 and 2017.

The order said the initial decision was “wrongly decided as violative of separation powers” and a judicial overreach.

The order also said it is “absolutely not” out of a lack of appreciation for the importance of public education.

“The parties in this matter have submitted new reports on the steps they have taken to provide students in the plaintiff school districts with the constitutionally mandated opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education,” the order said.

Chief Justice Donald Beatty and Kaye Hearn, who voted in support of the original lawsuit, dissented.

“Unfortunately, our Court has lost the will to do even the minimal amount necessary to avoid becoming complicit actors in the deprivation of a minimally adequate education to South Carolina’s children,” Beatty wrote in his dissenting opinion.

Beatty said by doing nothing, the court would have also been complicit in failing the children of South Carolina.

He also said there is precedent in “sister courts” across the United States to hold states accountable for education funding — citing cases in Idaho, Kansas and Ohio.

“As the Court stated previously in Abbeville II, the responsibility for the constitutional infirmity is the fault of all the parties, and the problems cannot be fixed through more funding alone,” Beatty wrote.

State Superintendent Molly Spearman released a statement saying she would continue to work with the General Assembly and districts to make sure all students have the opportunity to be successful.

“As State Superintendent, I will always advocate for the needs of our students, with or without an order from the Court,” Spearman said.

Abbeville County School District Superintendent Betty Jo Hall said she was “extremely disappointed” in the decision.

“I think that’s unfortunate because I think we still know there are disparities that we’re facing as a school district,” Hall said. “We are, of course, extremely disappointed that no more equity came out of that lawsuit, but we will continue to strive to do what’s best for the students that we serve.”

Hall said the district is thankful for the capital improvements funding it received but expected more to come from the suit.

“It won’t keep us from continuing to fight so that our children will have equality in the services and the facilities that we have,” Hall said.

Contact staff writer Ariel Gilreath at 864-943-5644 or follow on Twitter @IJARIELGILREATH.