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Will Plaintiffs Appeal South Carolina “Minimally Adequate” Decision?

Ruling that South Carolina is failing to provide an adequate education to its schoolchildren but declining many of plaintiffs’ specific requests for relief, Judge Thomas Cooper denied both plaintiff and defendant motions to reconsider his December 2005 trial court ruling in South Carolina’s Abbeville v. State lawsuit. While the plaintiffs have not yet decided whether they will appeal, Carl Epps, attorney for the plaintiffs, told The State, “I don’t see where [the] order provides enough relief to avoid appeal.” Bobby Stepp, an attorney for the state, has said the state will not appeal

In his July 12 decision, Judge Cooper reiterated his finding that South Carolina was constitutionally required to provide early childhood through third grade intervention programs to the state’s neediest students, citing their importance in overcoming the effects of poverty. Providing these programs is necessary for meeting the constitutional standard of “minimally adequate education” that the state supreme court set out in its 1999 ruling in the case, he ruled. However, the court rejected plaintiffs’ claims that other educational “inputs” – such as school facilities and teacher training programs – were inadequate, saying the evidence was not sufficient to support findings of constitutional violations in these areas.

A Mixed Ruling

Judge Cooper’s 2005 ruling, while mixed, was hailed as an example of the strong remedies that courts can order in school funding litigation. In his ruling this month, Judge Cooper reiterated his finding of the necessity of high quality early childhood education for the state’s poorest children.

The facts adduced at trial showed well beyond a preponderance of the evidence that early intervention programs are required to educate children in poverty…. Without early intervention programs, the opportunities for children in poverty to acquire a minimally adequate education are illusory.

In denying relief to plaintiffs on a number of other claims of educational inadequacy, Judge Cooper said that “many aspects of the system cry out for improvement.” Nonetheless, he also noted that “this case has never been about what is best for the children of the State,” but only to establish, based on the evidence, what elements satisfy the state’s obligation to provide a “minimally adequate education.” Plaintiffs, the court ruled, did not show that the state was failing to meet that low standard in the other areas and also did not demonstrate that their suggested remedies would significantly improve student achievement.

Taking the Fight “on the Road”

The refusal of the court to order more relief for South Carolina’s under-funded schools was a disappointment to education advocates, and Education First, a coalition of educators and other education stake-holders, chose a novel way to express their displeasure. Billboard advertisements along I-95 in South Carolina, paid for by Education First, will now welcome motorists to the “home of ‘minimally adequate education,’” criticizing the low constitutional standard the state’s courts have set (see story at The State). The billboards also call on lawmakers to “fund education equity now!”

Prepared by Matthew Samberg, July 26, 2007