Three years after ruling that the state’s system for financing public education was unconstitutional, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed course and terminated its jurisdiction of the case on November 17, 2017, holding that the Court’s previous decision “was wrongly decided as violative of separation of powers.” Abbeville Co. Sch. Dist. State.The vote was 3-2, with the two dissenters issuing a strongly-worded opinion that stated that “Unfortunately, our Court has lost the will to do even the minimal amount necessary to avoid becoming complicit actors in the deprivation of a minimally adequate education to South Carolina’s students.”
In its original 2014 decision, the Court had directed the parties to present a plan to address the constitutional violations. In response, the Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives established a bi-partisan task force composed of legislators, business representatives and educators from the plaintiff districts to devise a solution. In 2016, the legislative leaders filed a report that with the court that listed several hundred million dollars in increased appropriations the legislature adopted during the session, including a number of categorical programs aimed at high poverty districts and a number of bills aimed at restructuring aspects of the administration of the education system. Plaintiffs stated that most of the new appropriations were state-wide increases that benefitted all school districts and from which the plaintiff districts would receive only a small share and that the other reforms constituted scattered items that nowhere compared to 19 pages of specific reforms recommended by the House Task Force.
The court majority’s brief opinion stated that the General Assembly had responded in good faith the Court’s mandate by adopting “numerous legislative initiatives, as well as increased funding for students.” The dissenters would have maintained jurisdiction over the case until the defendants completed a thorough study of the current education funding formula and had identified the fruits of their labors to the court.
According to the Charleston Post-Courier, since 2014, the legislature has increased funding for the schools by about $600 million, expanded a full-day pre-kindergarten program for four- year- olds that is now operating in 64 of 80 school districts, and funded $56 million for building improvements–but the bulk of the additional money was not specifically for the poor, rural districts that sued.