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South Carolina

Private Tax Credits | Costing Out | Useful Resources

Historical Background

The four cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision, included South Carolina's Briggs v. Elliott. Advocates in South Carolina continue working to realize the dream of Brown: equal educational opportunity.

In 1988, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed a circuit court's dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's public school funding system in Richland County v. Campbell, 364 S.E.2d 470. That case claimed the system was inequitable based on major disparities in per-pupil spending between high- and low-wealth school districts.

Abbeville v. State

Despite this precedent, in 1993, almost half of South Carolina's 91 school districts sued the State, alleging that the education finance system violated the state and federal constitutions and a state funding statute. The trial court granted defendants' motion to dismiss, but the South Carolina Supreme Court, in Abbeville County School District v. State, 515 S.E.2d 535 (S.C. 1999), distinguished its earlier Richland County decision, upheld plaintiffs' “adequacy” claim based on the South Carolina education clause, and remanded the case for trial.

The court also held that the education clause "requires the General Assembly to provide the opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate education" and defined that education to include providing students adequate and safe facilities in which they have the opportunity to acquire:

1) the ability to read, write, and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science;
2) a fundamental knowledge of economic, social, and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and
3) academic and vocational skills.

Abbeville Trial

During a 101-day trial, plaintiff witnesses described difficulties districts and schools face, including:

devastating teacher turnover due to low salaries and meager benefits
uncertified teachers
buildings in shoddy condition
lack of equipment
growing numbers of ELL students
students from poverty backgrounds, and
graduation rates that vary between 33% and 57.

Plaintiffs, represented by Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, also presented witnesses who testified about educational programs, such as high-quality preschool, quality teaching, and early literacy interventions, which have proven track records of success and would, plaintiffs contend, greatly improve student outcomes – if the districts had adequate funding to provide them.

As reported in The State newspaper, defendants argued that students in these poor districts are making the same steady progress as students in other parts of the state and urged the court to reject plaintiffs' allegations. Counsel for the state defendants argued that although the state has set academic goals for students, those goals exceed what the state is required to fund, which is only a "minimally adequate" education, according to The State.

Trial Court Decision

In December 2005, the trial court ruled that the state had failed its constitutional responsibility and ordered the state to provide preschool and other interventions through "at least grade three" to "address the impact of poverty...in the lives of children."

At the same time, the court found for defendants on plaintiffs' claims of inadequate teaching quality and inadequate facilities.

Recent Events

After the trial court’s decision, the legislature failed in its 2007 session to provide the preschool to third-grade programs ordered, and one plaintiff superintendent claimed the lack of legislative action “gave us no recourse but to handle it judicially.” Briefing of the appeal will occur through the winter, and oral argument is anticipated in June 2008.

In September 2007, the Riley Institute published "In Their Own Words: A Public Vision for Educational Excellence in South Carolina," to give members of different constituencies an opportunity to share their views on how to improve learning. State Education Superintendent says he hopes that the study will provide “additional leverage when education proposals come before lawmakers” in 2008.


The South Carolina School Boards Association commissioned a study, released in 2000, to determine the cost of meeting the state's Education Accountability Act (EAA), which was passed earlier that year and was intended to raise standards and achievement state-wide. However, the state has not fully funded the EAA mandates. The cost study concluded that per-pupil expenditures for operations would need to be increased by almost 50%, in 1998 dollars, to meet the standards by 2010.

Private School Tax Credits

In the 2004, 2005, and 2006 legislative sessions, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford championed a state system of tax credits for parents who send their children to private or parochial schools, or home-school them. South Carolinians for Responsible Government, an organization funded mostly by out-of-state supporters, has been the most vocal proponent of these proposals.

The majority of South Carolina's poor and minority students live in rural areas without private or parochial school options available. They also attend underfunded schools.

Useful Resources

The State, Columbia, South Carolina's daily newspaper

Corridor of Shame, documentary video

Last Updated: July, 2008