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How South Carolina's constitution affects educational quality

Two Approaches, Two Outcomes

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U.S. News and World Report magazine does a yearly ranking of all 50 states and compares them to one another based on various factors such as health care, infrastructure, economy, government, and education. In its most recent ranking, South Carolina was ranked 50 in education, 48 in college readiness, and 28 in pre-kindergarten quality. (That sounds like a relatively decent number until you also realize that the same study ranked South Carolina 43 in pre-kindergarten enrollment).

By contrast, Washington state (the Boeing Company's other major manufacturing hub) was ranked 7 among all states in education, 11 in college readiness, and 7 in pre-kindergarten quality. While some may accept these stark differences with a shrug of indifference, it is fair to ask the question, "What might account for such a disparity between these two states?" and "Is there something about Washington that we might emulate in order to improve education here in South Carolina?" One of the unlikely first places to look is the constitution of each state, and how the constitutional differences translate to very different court decisions on public schools.

In our state, in a recent appellate case named Abbeville v. South Carolina, the courts issued a final, controversial ruling in a public school funding challenge in which the central legal question was whether or not the state was providing all of its children a "minimally adequate education" as required by the state constitution. In a prior ruling on this issue, the same court held that the state was not providing this minimal level of education to all of its students, and it began consideration of the question on whether the courts could and should require the South Carolina General Assembly to make those improvements. The court's final ruling on this issue, after two members of the previous majority retired and were replaced, let the legislature off the hook by holding it was solely up to the General Assembly what, if any, improvements to the state's educational system needed to be made.

Contrast our constitution's lukewarm commitment to a "minimally adequate education" to Washington state's constitutional language, which declares "it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education for all children residing within its boarders without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex" and which requires "general and uniform system of public schools" with equal access to funding. In two of its recent cases dealing with challenges to the state educational system, Seattle School District v. State, and McLeary v. State, the court held that the state did not meet its duty to provide "ample education" because it did not adequately fund basic education via dependable and regular tax sources. As a direct result of these rulings, in June 2014 the court issued a "show-cause" order which summoned the state to appear before it to address why it should not be held in contempt of court for violating the court's previous order. That January 2014 order directed the state to submit a complete plan for fully funding education pursuant to McCleary. In September 2014, the court found the state in contempt for failing to comply with the January 2014 order, and in August 2015 the court ordered sanctions against the state.

Can anyone even fathom a similar outcome ever occurring in South Carolina, and if so, what the ramifications of such a decision would be?

A very brief comparative analysis of the two state constitutions and the respective court decisions in these public school cases show that not only does Washington's state constitution hold the state to a higher standard for providing a higher level of education to its students than South Carolina's does, but that the court under the Washington state constitution is empowered to hold its state legislature accountable. That is because under the Washington state constitution, the state supreme court is a co-equal branch to the state legislature and all judges (including state supreme court justices) are elected by popular vote. By contrast, under the South Carolina state constitution, the state legislature not only elects all judges and justices, but they have the power to remove those judges when their term expires as recently occurred to a sitting judge in Berkeley County.

Our state laws and state constitution, including the provisions which hamstring our courts' ability to check and balance the power of the legislature, are one of the main reasons why our educational system is in such poor shape. Any real effort to improve our educational system must begin with a meaningful effort to reform our laws, and as difficult as it may seem, amend our state constitution.


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