Legislature not expected to find education fix this year

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Legislators are unlikely to respond this year to the state Supreme Court's order to fix the education system that the justices say fails South Carolina's poor, rural children.

The GOP-controlled Legislature and Gov. Nikki Haley have asked for a rehearing on last November's decision, with legislators arguing both that the state's high court overstepped its authority in telling them to do anything and that the justices need to provide instruction on what to do. The justices ordered legislators and school officials to collectively fix the system but mandated no particular method for changing it and no timetable for doing so.

"They overstepped their bounds and didn't tell us something we don't already know," said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

Haley's complaint is that the court didn't give credit for the funding changes the Legislature passed in the budget last year at her recommendation. The ruling came two years after attorneys for the state and the rural districts that first sued in 1993 re-argued their appeal of a December 2005 lower court ruling that gave each side a partial victory.

"To say we have issues in rural areas, I totally agree with. ... They didn't account for what we already started to do," Haley said of the additional $180 million put toward education in the first of what she calls her multi-year education initiative. "That needs to be acknowledged."

The Legislature approved similar increases to education the previous two years. Yet state spending on K-12 public schools is just this year back to the spending levels of 2007-08, before the Great Recession-era cuts, according to data from the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

Last year's biggest change was adding a "weighting" for poverty in the funding formula, providing more to educate poor students. Haley's backing got Republicans on board with an idea advocated for years by Democrats and education advocates. The budget also put more toward reading coaches and technology in rural schools.

The court did acknowledge many piecemeal changes since 1993, including more money, new programs and various reform laws. But in discounting lawmakers' contention the case was moot, the justices noted state money is still distributed to districts based on laws passed in 1977 and 1984. The justices found the state's fractured education funding system denies opportunties to students in poor, rural districts. Issues cited include inadequate busing and an inability to attract and keep good teachers. But the justices stressed that funding alone will not fix the problem.

Those underlying formulas — which the justices called an outdated, fractured funding scheme — remain intact. And the Legislature hasn't followed the 1977 law's suggested increases since 2008.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she's "extremely disappointed" the state's Republican leaders want to continue arguing the case.

"If they didn't tell us anything new, why haven't we done anything about it?" she said. "None of us should be proud that it has taken us 21-plus years to come to this point, and we're still right back to where we were 21 years ago. It is way past time for this General Assembly to deal with this issue. We're starting on the second generation of kids."

Haley insists the rehearing request won't hold up action. Her budget proposal this year includes creating a teacher recruitment program for rural schools that will be fully funded in 10 years. The delay is because she pays for her plan by phasing out teacher stipends for national certification.

"We're not going to stop now. We're going to keep going," she said. "The ruling is secondary to me. That doesn't drive me in any direction because we were already driving to start with."

But legislative leaders intend to spend this year studying the issue.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Jay Lucas announced creating a 17-member committee that includes House members, business leaders, school district representatives and state Superintendent Molly Spearman. The group's reform suggestions aren't due until next January.

"The task we gave them is absolutely enormous. We wanted to give them time to work," said Lucas, R-Darlington.

The court mandated that legislators and school officials work together on a comprehensive solution, and the task force allows for that dialogue, he said.

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