- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Attorneys for rural school districts contend legislators’ court-ordered plan for fixing South Carolina’s education system isn’t a plan at all, but an accounting of legislative meetings and list of budget items that don’t address the problems.

The latest court filing in the 23-year-old case accuses the Legislature of violating state Supreme Court orders and asks justices to at least set a new deadline of next summer.

Justices gave legislators an end-of-session deadline this year for submitting a plan to improve South Carolina schools, after ruling in November 2014 that poor, rural students lack educational opportunities.

Legislators’ 18-page report listed eight bills introduced in the House - four of which passed - and 18 items in the budget that started July 1. It also detailed meetings held this year by House and Senate panels created to study the issue.

“The state has failed to translate either committee’s body of work into action,” reads the districts’ response, filed Thursday. The report “only details the extent to which the state studied the problems, but fails to set forth a remedial plan or a timeline for implementation as required.”

It notes that two of the four new laws call for more study.

A third law defines the expectations of a high school graduate. The fourth rebuilds a support system originally established in the state’s 1998 Education Accountability Act. State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said last month she’s hiring 30 “transformation coaches” to help struggling districts.

“This bill provides little to nothing that is new,” reads Thursday’s filing.

Neither House Speaker Jay Lucas nor Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman commented Friday. Last month’s report said the effort is ongoing.

“Improving access to quality education for every child in South Carolina is a process that requires careful consideration and cannot be remedied overnight,” Lucas, R-Hartsville, said then.

The districts’ response contends that most of the budget’s roughly $400 million additional for public schools is distributed statewide, so it does little to offset poor districts’ disadvantages.

It points to 2 percent cost-of-living increases for teachers as an example. While teachers need to be paid more, a statewide increase doesn’t help poor, rural districts attract and retain high-quality teachers, it says.

The $9 million that the budget sends to dozens of high-poverty districts for salary boosts breaks down to less than $50 per student, and it may be a one-time expense, so its long-term helpfulness is “doubtful at best,” the response says.

It contends legislators ignored what justices criticized as a complicated, outdated “funding scheme.”

“Perhaps most importantly, the state continues to ignore the heart of the problem … that the state’s entire funding system has become an irrational patchwork of funding streams over time,” reads the response.

The state’s funding formulas date to the 1977 Education Finance Act, which is still a major source of state money distributed to districts. Adjusted yearly for inflation, the so-called “base student cost” was meant to cover the minimal education needs of the time. But the Legislature hasn’t fully funded it since the Great Recession.

The 2016-17 budget includes an additional $218 million to raise the base student cost by $130 per student. Fully funding it under the formula would cost roughly $500 million more.

Earlier this year, Spearman urged legislators to commit to rewriting the decades-old formulas over the next few years.

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