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Decades-old education funding lawsuit ended by South Carolina Supreme Court

November 20, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Supreme Court has dismissed a 24-year-old lawsuit filed by rural school districts, three years after ordering state legislators to improve opportunities for poor, rural children.

The 3-2 decision filed Friday releases lawmakers from the high court’s oversight.

To continue overseeing legislators’ progress “would be a gross overreach of judicial power and separation of powers,” Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge wrote in the majority opinion, echoing the stance he took three years ago when he was on the losing side of the court’s vote.

It’s the argument that Republican legislative leaders have taken for decades in fighting the case.

Kittredge says it’s understandable that the school districts want the justices to “keep its thumb on the scale of legislative power,” but the court’s majority refuses to do so.

He stresses he still believes public education “is of great importance” and notes the Legislature has “responded in good faith” to try to meet the mandate.

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“Does the dismissal of this case reflect a lack of appreciation for the critical importance of public education in South Carolina? Absolutely not,” he wrote with the last two words printed in bold in the decision.

The justices agreeing with Kittredge this time were elected by the Legislature since the 2014 ruling.

Chief Justice Don Beatty wrote a dissenting opinion, saying the court should not stop overseeing the case until the Legislature is finished studying how to better fund poor, rural districts.

In November 2014, the state’s highest court ruled the state fails to provide poor, rural children even the minimal education opportunities the constitution requires. Without specifying how, justices ordered legislators and educators to work together to fix issues including inexperienced teachers, decrepit buildings and hours-long school bus commutes. GOP leaders decried the ruling then as overstepping legislative authority.

The high court has previously refused Republicans’ appeals to close the case.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, whose latest request asked justices to at least dismiss the House, said the order confirms that justices are satisfied by that chamber’s efforts.

“Providing every child in every part of our state access to a 21st century education has and will continue to be a priority” for the House, he said in a statement.

Lucas, R-Hartsville, said the ruling means legislators can continue efforts to improve the education system without worrying about complying with an “arbitrary standard” set by the court.

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Both the House and Senate tasked new panels earlier this year — their second set since the ruling — with making recommendations, though legislators did not expect to pass any major changes in the session that starts in January. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster launched his own study last month with a tour of the eight districts highlighted in the 102-day trial a generation ago. McMaster, who is seeking his first full term in 2018, has said he plans to come up with his own proposals following his tour.

Legislators had no real deadline anyway. Justices initially gave legislators an undefined “reasonable time” to come up with a plan, which didn’t have to include more overall spending. When the court tried in 2015 to set deadlines, legislative leaders made it clear they would be ignored. Court-ordered deadlines turned into occasional progress reports.