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Equity lawsuit may upset school funding apple cart
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report



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JULY 27, 2003 - - Suppose you are given a choice of whether to send a youngster to public school in Greenville or Columbia versus Hampton or Allendale. Which would you pick?

The answer is pretty much a no-brainer. More than likely, you'd pick Greenville or Columbia, where students have access to a wider array of classes, resources and facilities. It's just common sense you'd want your child to go to the best school possible where he or she had the greatest opportunity to excel.

Starting Monday in a Clarendon County courtroom, lawyers for some of the poorest school districts in the state will challenge the state in a lawsuit that could have an enormous impact on the way South Carolina funds its public schools.

If they win, it's likely lawmakers would have to change how school districts get money. They might even have to come up with an extra $1 billion more per year for education, according to some estimates.

Interestingly, poorer school districts generally get more money now than the state average because they have more at-risk students. A January 2003 study for the state's Education Oversight Committee showed unsatisfactory, poorer school districts generally spend about $1,200 more per student than those who attend excellent districts.

But even though they spend more money, their students still have terrible results, such as graduation rates in the 30 percent range, said economist and report author Harry Miley.

"They are spending too much on fixed costs for leadership and operational costs and not enough on teachers' salaries and hiring better qualified teachers with master's degrees," the report said.

Because these areas of the state historically have much more poverty, it takes significantly more resources to raise students to higher performance levels. For example, a poorer county might only have 10 students in an English class compared to 20 in an urban school. But since both are required to offer the class, the instructional cost is twice as high in the poorer school. In turn, that draws away resources from electives and other courses.

In other words, even though a lot more money is being spent per capita on poorer students, it's still not enough to provide the same opportunities that exist at urban schools. That's why you'd rather send your kid to school in Columbia.

Lawyers for the poor districts will argue students in rural areas generally get an inadequate education - - not because money isn't being spent on them, but because there is so much that needs to be done to bring them in line with good schools.

"Nobody can say that money doesn't matter, but we do not want to have money thrown at the problem," said lawyer Carl Epps, who is the lead lawyer for the poorer districts. "We want to be able to develop the programs that these children need to learn."

Epps will represent eight districts -- - - Allendale, Dillon 2, Florence 4, Hampton, Jasper, Lee, Marion 7 and Orangeburg 3 -- in the case that got its start in 1993.

"The case was brought because the state has never offered adequate educational opportunities to a very large segment of our state, and those universally are the poor and ethnic minorities," he said.

Meanwhile, the state will counter that South Carolina schools do offer a "minimally adequate" education, which is all state law requires.

For lawyer Bobby Stepp, the crux of the matter is pretty narrow - - whether students in poorer districts have the opportunity for a "minimally adequate" education. It's not a lawsuit over what the state's education policy ought to be, he said.

"The test is one of opportunity, not achievement," said Stepp, who represents the General Assembly in the case. "Accountability systems are especially effective in reducing the achievement gap in students…South Carolina's accountability system is already starting to accomplish those things across the board.

Since 1993, South Carolina has had enormous educational improvements - - from millions spent on school infrastructure to higher teacher pay, lower class sizes and better classroom accountability standards. Now the question will be whether those improvements have been enough to provide a basic education for students anywhere in the state or whether more needs to be done for poorer areas.

Lawmakers are nervously keeping track of what happens over the next few weeks in the Manning courtroom. If poorer districts win, they know next year's legislative session will be much tougher.

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Thought you might want to see this week's cartoon effort by our Bill McLemore:


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