Justice for impoverished schools, 21 years in the making

Court finds state funding formula denies many poor, rural students their right to an adequate education
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 23, 2015

After more than two decades, rural schools in South Carolina are tasting a sweet historic victory.

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in November that the state funding formula denies many poor, rural students their right to an adequate educationÑ21 years after several districts first filed the lawsuit.

Large percentages of students in high-poverty rural districts are unable to meet minimal benchmarks on standardized tests, but are pushed through the system to graduation, the court wrote.

“Part of the reason I think the lawsuit extended for over two decades is because the state legislators had not come to grips with what equity is,” says Vashti Washington, superintendent of Jasper County Public Schools, one of the districts that filed the complaint. “To some, equity is when you give everybody the same amount of money, not realizing that in systems with a higher percentage of poverty and consistent academic struggles, it is not the same.”

The court also found that many uncertified teachersÑand those who did not meet competency standardsÑhave been concentrated in high-poverty rural schools, often teaching math, English and other core subjects. The ruling states that the two-hour bus rides that many students face each way to school are barriers to learning.

The lawsuit, Abbeville County School District, et. al. v. the State of South Carolina, was first filed on behalf of 36 rural, high-poverty districts in 1993. The districts alleged that the state’s 1977 K12 funding formula was unconstitutional because the property tax base in their districts prevented them from creating local revenue at the same rates generated by wealthier school systems.

The case was dismissed in 1996, but the districts appealed. In 2005, after years of court battles, the Circuit Court ordered the legislature to invest more in early childhood education, but the districts lost on issues related to teacher pay and building conditions. Both sides appealed the part they lost.

In November’s 3-2 ruling, the court ordered both sides to design a solution to fix the violation. One option is a statewide property tax for schools to ease the financial strain on rural districts that do not have a strong local property tax base. Another proposal is consolidating small districts located in the same county.

The number of U.S. school districts that have sued state legislatures has increased since the Great Recession. According to the national Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states had school-finance cases working their way through the courts in 2013, while four others had recently settled similar legal action.

And districts in Pennsylvania, Mississippi and New Jersey filed lawsuits against their state legislatures last fall to get more funding for poor and rural schools.

“It’s important for us to provide the best quality education for children in these rural communities so they will become contributors to society, and not detractors,” Washington says.