After 21 years in the courts, our school finance lawsuit has finally ended. Late last year, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a 3–2 decision that the state is inadequately funding the poorest districts and failing to meet the constitutional standard of a minimally adequate education. The state’s defense attempted one last-ditch effort to fight the decision, but that request was denied by the Court in a summary two-line order last month.
So what will happen now? Have Abbeville, Allendale, Dillon, Lee, and their fellow plaintiff districts really “won” anything?
The decision reflects an important understanding by the court of the realities of life in rural South Carolina, which is a good start. The decision refers to the incredible challenges of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers in the Abbeville districts as well as the difficulties of simply getting students to school when they live in remote and sparsely populated parts of our state. There is much in the decision to celebrate and the finality of the ruling is a relief.
But now the real work of creating a new and fair funding system must begin. Predictably, some would like to just erase problem districts by consolidating them out of existence. There’s no research that supports this as an effective cost-saving strategy, and as a practical matter, the students will still need to be educated no matter where district lines are drawn.
So how will policymakers bridge the huge gaps that currently exists for rural students in our state? As the brilliant cartoon by Denver Post cartoonist Mike Keefe implies, we can’t let our students go. We can’t let teachers go. We shouldn’t let districts go. But the more subtle point of the cartoon is that we are making school funding a political process. In South Carolina – as in many other places – the budget drives the functions of schools. In other words: “what you get is what we decide we have to give you.”
But what if we had a data-driven, evidence-based starting point for funding schools without any agenda, political or otherwise? What if we had a roadmap that showed us how to get a child from a poor rural area to the same finish line we expect for students in wealthy communities: holding a high school diploma? What if we had impartial school finance experts take a look at our students, our schools, our communities and their needs and calculate the true cost of providing a constitutionally-adequate education everywhere in South Carolina? This is not just wishful thinking – it’s a real process used regularly by states all over the country, typically referred to as a “costing out” or “adequacy” study. The last time a costing-out study was done in South Carolina was 2000, so we are long overdue for a new analysis.
Could schools and districts continue to limp along on what they’ve been provided so far? Would they be happy to receive a few more crumbs from this budget initiative or that, from someone’s pet idea or project? Would throwing a few more dollars toward these districts soothe some consciences? Sure, but we’ve already agreed that the resulting outcomes for our state – too few well-educated adults able to work good-paying jobs and contribute to our economy – are not acceptable. What we MUST let go of is the notion that what we’re currently doing is working.
Legislators have already convened study committees, and proposals are being floated, but given the widely divergent and strongly held political and ideological positions of elected officials, education groups, and, yes, rural school leaders, it makes more sense to have an impartial party provide the real bottom line of education costs in South Carolina. Will the totals potentially be in the billions of dollars and seem staggering at first? That’s likely, but until we know how far we have to go, we can’t even start to figure out how to get there.
As many have said about our rural schools, there’s no silver bullet to fix the problem. But there is a next right step. Let’s take it.