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Abbeville County School District v. State

Supreme Court of South Carolina

November 12, 2014

Abbeville County School District, et al., Appellants-Respondents,
v.
The State of South Carolina, et al., of whom Hugh K. Leatherman, Sr., as President Pro Tempore of the Senate and as a representative of the South Carolina Senate and James H. Lucas, as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House of Representatives and as a representative of the South Carolina House of Representatives are, Respondents-Appellants, and the State of South Carolina, Nikki R. Haley, as Governor of the State of South Carolina, are, Respondents

Heard: September 18, 2012.

Page 158

Appeal From Lee County. Thomas W. Cooper, Jr., Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2007-065159.

Carl B. Epps, III, Stephen G. Morrison, and Elizabeth Scott Moï se, and Rachel Atkin Hedley, all of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, of Columbia, and Laura Callaway Hart, of Duff, White, & Turner, LLC, of Columbia, for Appellants-Respondents.

Robert E. Stepp, Elizabeth Van Doren Gray, and Roland M. Franklin, Jr., all of Sowell Gray Stepp & Lafitte, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondents-Appellants. Attorney General Alan Wilson, Deputy Solicitor General J. Emory Smith, Jr., and Swati Shah Patel, all of Columbia, for Respondent.

Kenneth L. Childs, William F. Halligan and Keith R. Powell, all of Childs & Halligan, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Association of School Administrators and South Carolina School Boards Association.

W. Allen Nickles, III and Susan M. Fittipaldi, both of Nickles Law Firm, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, The South Carolina Education Association.

Amanda G. Adler and Sue Berkowitz, both of Columbia, of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, for Amicus Curiae, The South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

Matthew T. Richardson, of Wyche, Burgess, Freeman & Parham, P.A., of Columbia, and Ellen M. Boylan, of Education Law Center, of Newark, New Jersey, for Amicus Curiae, The League of Women Voters of South Carolina and the South Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Stephen K. Benjamin and Tina N. Herbert, of McAngus, Goudelock & Courie, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Association of School Administrators and South Carolina School Boards Association.

Edward W. Laney, IV and R. Hawthorne Barrett, both of Turner Padget Graham & Laney, P.A., of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Association of School Nurses.

CHIEF JUSTICE TOAL. BEATTY and HEARN, JJ., concur. KITTREDGE, J., dissenting in a separate opinion in which PLEICONES, J. concurs.

OPINION

Page 159

[410 S.C. 623] Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may [410 S.C. 624] reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

Brown v. Bd. of Educ. ( Brown I ), 347 U.S. 483, 493, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954).

TOAL, CHIEF JUSTICE:

The South Carolina Constitution requires there be a system of free public schools that affords each student the opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education.[1] The plaintiffs, including eight South Carolina school districts, claim that the State has failed to meet this constitutional obligation. The trial court held that the State's failure to address the effects of pervasive poverty on students within the plaintiffs' school districts prevented those students from receiving the required opportunity. The trial court performed a thorough and cogent examination of the issues of this case. While we agree with the trial court's conclusion regarding the adverse effects of poverty, the Record demonstrates that there are myriad other issues, under the State's control, working to prevent students within these districts from receiving the constitutionally required opportunity. Thus, we find in favor of the plaintiffs, and affirm as modified.

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs in this action are school districts, students, parents, and taxpayers (collectively, the Plaintiff Districts) individually and collectively challenging South Carolina's method of funding public schools.[2] The defendants include the State of South Carolina; Nikki R. Haley, as Governor of South Carolina; Hugh K. Leatherman, Sr., as President Pro Tempore

Page 160

of the South Carolina Senate, and as a representative [410 S.C. 625] of the South Carolina Senate; and James H. Lucas, as Speaker Pro Tempore of the South Carolina House of Representatives and as a representative of the South Carolina House of Representatives (collectively, the Defendants).

I. Abbeville I

In Abbeville County School District v. State ( Abbeville I ), 335 S.C. 58, 515 S.E.2d 535 (1999), the Plaintiff Districts brought a declaratory judgment action challenging the Defendants' funding of public primary and secondary education. Specifically, the Plaintiff Districts claimed that South Carolina's education system was underfunded, resulting in a violation of the state constitution's education clause, and that to the extent the Defendants distributed funds without regard for school district wealth under the Education Improvement Act (EIA), the system violated the state and federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection. Id. at 64, 515 S.E.2d at 538. The Plaintiff Districts also asserted that the Education Finance Act (EFA) created a private cause of action. Id. (citing EIA, S.C. Code Ann. § § 59-21-420 to -450 (1990 & Supp. 1998); EFA, S.C. Code Ann. § § 59-20-10 to -80 (1990 & Supp.1998)). The Plaintiff Districts did not seek " equal" state funding, but instead alleged that the current funding scheme resulted in inadequate education. Id. The trial court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. Id. at 63, 515 S.E.2d at 538. This Court reversed the trial court's ruling as to the state constitution's education clause, and affirmed as to the remaining issues. Id. at 64, 515 S.E.2d at 538.

Prior to hearing Abbeville I, this Court denied constitutional challenges to the EFA and EIA statutory distribution methods. Richland Cnty. v. Campbell, 294 S.C. 346, 349-50, 364 S.E.2d 470, 472 (1988). We relied on Campbell, and the United States Supreme Court's ruling in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 93 S.Ct. 1278, 36 L.Ed.2d 16 (1973), to deny the Plaintiff Districts' equal protection claims. Abbeville I, 335 S.C. at 64-65, 515 S.E.2d at 538; see also Rodriguez, 411 U.S. at 23 (" The argument here is not that the children in districts having relatively low assessable property values are receiving no public education; rather, it is that they are receiving a poorer quality education than that available to children in [410 S.C. 626] districts having more assessable wealth. Apart from the unsettled and disputed question whether the quality of education may be determined by the amount of money expended for it, a sufficient answer to appellees' argument is that, at least where wealth is involved, the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages." (footnotes omitted)). The Abbeville I Court also upheld the trial court's ruling that the EFA did not create a private cause of action. Abbeville I, 335 S.C. at 65, 515 S.E.2d at 539 (citing S.C. Code Ann. § 59-20-30 (1990 & Supp. 1998); Citizens for Lee Cnty. v. Lee Cnty., 308 S.C. 23, 29, 416 S.E.2d 641, 645 (1992)).

The most prominent issue in Abbeville I concerned Article XI, section 3 of the South Carolina Constitution, entitled " System of free public schools and other public institutions." Id. at 66, 515 S.E.2d at 539 (quoting S.C. Const. art. XI, § 3). That section of the constitution provides:

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the state and shall establish, organize and support such other public institutions of learning as may be desirable.

S.C. Const. art. XI, § 3.

The trial court held that the section did not impose qualitative standards, and unless the Plaintiff Districts claimed that a universal system of free public schools did not exist, they could state no claim under the education clause. Abbeville I, 335 S.C. at 66, 515 S.E.2d at 539. This Court disagreed, and held that the South Carolina Constitution requires the General Assembly to " provide for the opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate education." Id. at 68, 515 S.E.2d at 540. The Court defined " minimally adequate" to include the provision of adequate and safe facilities in which students 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

Page 161

[410 S.C. 627] (3) Academic and vocational skills.

Id. at 68-69, 515 S.E.2d at 540 (" We recognize that we are not experts in education, and we do not intend to dictate the programs utilized in our public schools. Instead we have defined, within deliberately broad parameters, the outlines of the constitution's requirement of minimally adequate education." ). The Court found the complaint stated a claim of inadequate educational opportunity, and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 69, 515 S.E.2d at 541.

II. Abbeville I Remand

On remand, the trial court commenced a non-jury trial from July 18, 2003, until December 9, 2004. According to the trial court, this Court's decision in Abbeville I created a single issue on remand: " Are the students in the Plaintiff Districts being provided the opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education in adequate and safe facilities as defined by the South Carolina Supreme Court?" The Plaintiff Districts employed a strategy which examined the resources available to the relevant school districts, also referred to as system " inputs," as well as the school districts' and their students' performances, referred to as system " outputs." The Plaintiff Districts argued that an analysis of the inputs placed into the school system, and the resulting outputs, proved that the State did not afford students in these districts an opportunity to receive a minimally adequate education. In opposition, the Defendants argued that the resources placed into the system provided the opportunity for students to obtain a minimally adequate education, and some students chose to take advantage of the opportunity, while others did not.

The trial court found that facilities in the Plaintiff Districts were safe and adequate. The trial court likewise found that South Carolina Curriculum Standards were sufficient, and that the State's system of teacher licensure ensured at least minimally competent teachers provided instruction consistent with these curriculum standards. The trial court determined that inputs into the educational system satisfied the constitutional requirement, except for the State's failure to fund early childhood intervention programs. According to the trial court:

The child born to poverty whose cognitive abilities have largely been formed by the age of six in a setting largely [410 S.C. 628] devoid of printed word, the life blood of literacy, and other stabilizing influences necessary for normal development, is already behind, before he or she receives the first word of instruction in a formal educational setting. It is for this reason that early childhood intervention at the pre-kindergarten level and continuing through at least grade three is necessary to minimize, to the extent possible, the impact and the effect of poverty on the educational abilities and achievements of these children.

Thus, the trial court concluded that the Defendants did not meet the constitutional requirement as a result of their failure to adequately fund early childhood intervention programs.

The Plaintiff Districts appealed, and the Defendants cross-appealed. This Court heard oral arguments on June 25, 2008, and re-arguments on September 18, 2012.

ISSUES PRESENTED

I. Whether this case is moot?
II. Whether the State's education system affords students in the Plaintiff Districts the opportunity for a ...

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