In a season of Thanksgiving, we in the Lowcountry have much to be thankful for. Many of us have had the luxury of attending some of the best elementary and secondary schools in the state, funded by various half-cent sales taxes and formerly supported by a robust property tax base. Others in South Carolina have not been so fortunate. Public schools in the poorer areas of the state, particularly rural counties such as Jasper, Allendale, and Abbeville, have earned the name the “Corridor of Shame” for their woeful conditions. These conditions led to an ongoing, multi-decade legal battle in our state courts, that ended just this past week.
Since more affluent counties are not required to share resources with the poorer ones, the schools in the poorer areas are doomed to endure underpaid teachers and decrepit facilities. The conditions in these counties were so bad that a lawsuit was initiated on their behalf against the state of South Carolina over 20 years ago, alleging that the state was failing to provide these students with a “minimally adequate” education, as required by the South Carolina state constitution. In this lawsuit, Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, several of the plaintiff school districts sued, claiming that the state failed to provide sufficient funding for the districts to fulfill their constitutional mandate to provide for the students.
The South Carolina Supreme Court made a final ruling this past week in the ongoing legal battle, and unfortunately the children lost. In a vote of 3-2, the justices ruled that the Legislature would not be compelled to change their method of funding these poorer school districts as the plaintiffs requested. The decision leaves it in the hands of the Legislature what solutions, if any, might be implemented to address the woeful conditions that continue in these rural counties to this day.
In a way, this decision might have been expected. The most significant changes in South Carolina’s public education system have been mandated through the federal courts, in which the judges have lifetime appointments and true independence from political considerations. In South Carolina, judges and appellate justices are elected entirely by the Legislature, which is not the case with the federal judiciary or most other states. A cynic might observe that our legislature would likely not elect justices inclined to challenge it on a major component of educational funding, a possible way for some to explain last week’s otherwise disappointing ruling. Indeed, Brown v. Board of Education, the signature federal court ruling of our generation, arose in part out of a disparate funding case commenced in Summerton, South Carolina. That case, Briggs v. Elliott, originally challenged Clarendon County for failing to provide school buses to African-American children. One can easily see the parallels between the now unsuccessful Abbeville case, suing the state for similar resources, and Briggs, in which African-American plaintiffs sued Clarendon County also seeking equal resources for their children.
The decision in Abbeville takes on additional significance in light of a recently released local study outlining the disparities between African Americans and white residents in Charleston County. That study, released by the Avery Research Center, showed dramatic differences in graduation rates and suspensions within the Charleston County School District depending on the race of the student. Although the Abbeville decision dealt with other rural counties in the state, we see that race continues to be a defining factor in South Carolina for the type of education a student is likely to receive and even the type of treatment and discipline a student is likely to receive once in school. These disparities must be addressed across all of our state’s school systems in order for the economic wage gap and disparate graduation rates in South Carolina to change.
In short, while we we are blessed to have many excellent schools within our state, the battle to provide similar resources to all children continues. The recent Abbeville court decision and Avery Research Center report show us exactly where the battle lines for equal educational opportunities should be drawn.