- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Supreme Court has refused to reconsider its order last fall that lawmakers fix the state’s broken education system, officially ending Republican leaders’ appeals.

The state’s high court denied requests from the GOP-controlled Legislature and Gov. Nikki Haley to rehear the case first filed by poor, rural school districts in 1993.

The justices ruled last November that the state’s fractured education funding system denies opportunities to poor students. They ordered legislators and school officials to collectively fix the system but mandated no method for changing it and no timetable for doing so. They also stressed money alone would not solve the problem.

In seeking a rehearing, legislators argued both that the state’s high court overstepped its authority and needed to provide more direction. Haley wanted credit for education changes in last year’s budget.

But the justices said there’s no basis for a rehearing.

“We are unable to discover that any material fact or principle of law has been either overlooked or disregarded,” reads the one-paragraph order, dated Friday.

Between 1996 and November, the Legislature alone spent more than $4.7 million defending its case, according to data the House and Senate provided to The Associated Press under public records requests. The attorney general’s office said it had no way of determining its costs since staff attorneys handled its role over the years.

The districts’ attorneys calculate their donated time over the past 22 years as worth $8.5 million.

Attorney Carl Epps said he’s not surprised by the court’s refusal but is “gratified the decision is now absolutely final.”

Former Democratic Superintendent Jim Rex said the state’s greatest loss occurred in the generations of children who moved through the system as the case wound its way through the courts. “The loss of taxpayer dollars and time and energy the state put into the effort to fight it … amounts to a tragic two decades to the state,” he said.

Last week, House Speaker Jay Lucas announced a 17-member committee was being created to study the issue. It includes House members, business leaders, school district representatives and state Superintendent Molly Spearman. The final five members - chosen by the districts’ attorneys - were named Monday. The group’s reform suggestions aren’t due until next January.

Lucas, R-Darlington, said he hopes the court’s action causes the committee to “immediately begin its work to develop a robust strategy that ensures every child is given access to the best possible education in every part of our state.”

A bipartisan Senate panel was appointed earlier this month. It has no deadline.

Senate Education Chairman John Courson, one of the five appointed, said he’s disappointed by the court’s refusal to reconsider.

“I thought it was egregious - not that we don’t need to improve K-12 education, but the fact I think they overstepped their constitutional authority,” Courson, R-Columbia, said of last fall’s ruling. “There is a tremendous amount of confusion on the order. It absolutely lacks clarity.”

Haley had argued the court needed to acknowledge reforms made last year at her recommendation. The ruling came two years after attorneys for the state and the districts re-argued their appeal of a December 2005 lower court ruling that gave each side a partial victory.

“Even though the court didn’t take the progress we’ve made into consideration, we’re going to keep up our fight to transform education,” said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams.

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. Those underlying formulas remain intact. And the Legislature hasn’t followed the 1977 law’s suggested increases since 2008.

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