Supreme Court should rule on state education funding

No doubt, equitably funding education, particularly in South Carolina, can stymie even the smartest among us.

But the state Supreme Court's taking nearly three years to rule in a lawsuit brought by some of the state's poorest school districts is at least a year too long.

The high court has no deadline to meet, but every year that passes without some legal guidance and the impetus this issue sorely needs is another year lost to get funding right or, at a minimum, improve it.

Are the justices waiting to see whether lawmakers come up with their own remedies? Certainly, lawmakers have been "studying" the issue of education funding for several years now. But one of the few substantive things they've done to date is to make an already complicated system more complicated by throwing out resident homeowner support of school operations and replacing it with a sales tax.

In many ways, lawmakers made it worse. They also severely limited local governments' ability to raise property taxes, while keeping in place a formula that bases the largest portion of state education funding on a school district's ability to raise local money.

The issue before the Supreme Court today got its start in 1993, when dozens of poor, rural school districts challenged the state's funding formula under the 1977 Education Finance Act. In 1999, a high court ruling laid out the "minimally adequate" standard for state education funding . The court defined it as the ability to read, write and speak English, knowledge of math and science, and an understanding of history, economics and civics, as well as vocation skills.

That ruling, which also returned the case to circuit court, came after a two-year wait.

In December 2004, attorneys for the school presented their cases to Judge Thomas Cooper, who took another year to issue his decision. The judge's central finding was that the state hadn't provided enough early childhood intervention to beat back the effects of poverty, which put poor students at risk of never being able to catch up. The judge sided with the state when it came to funding for school buildings and teacher salaries.

After the 2005 lower court ruling, the legislature established a pilot pre-kindergarten program.

Both sides argued their case before the Supreme Court in 2008.

Now we wait.

This year, the House passed a bill that changes the EFA funding formula. It would take into account poverty levels, one of the key arguments of the school districts suing the state, as well as students' English proficiency. It also would take into account money school districts get through "fee in lieu of taxes," which some businesses pay instead of property taxes. That has given districts with a large industrial tax base, such as Greenville County, a big advantage over Beaufort County, with its largely residential property base. For the past two years, we have received no EFA funding.

The bill has been in the Senate Finance Committee since March.

As for the lawsuit, justices have several options. They include: Decide the state should do more to help rural districts hire the best teachers, fix rundown schools and supply classrooms; decide the state gives the districts enough money to meet the "minimally adequate" standard; or stick with the lower court's split decision from 2005.

Nearly a generation has passed since the legal case began its arduous journey. It's time to get it settled one way or another.