- Associated Press - Friday, June 30, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s Senate leader asked the state Supreme Court on Friday to stop judging the Legislature’s efforts to improve an unconstitutional school funding system that denies educational opportunities to poor, rural students.

“Quite simply, the court’s job is done,” Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman argued through his lawyers.

Leatherman’s filing didn’t say that the problems are fixed. To the contrary, it said “there are no silver bullets that will absolutely achieve a ‘constitutionally compliant education system.’”

But he said the justices are overstepping their bounds, and argued that only the General Assembly can “legislate a solution to the constitutional infirmities.”

Leatherman also said the justices - who are elected by the Legislature in South Carolina - are wasting the court’s limited time.

“The court has a full, revolving docket filled with matters that demand the court’s attention,” the filing says.

House Speaker Jay Lucas filed a similar request last week, with a twist. He asked the state’s high court to either stop its oversight completely, or at least release the House.

Ruling in 2014 a lawsuit school districts initially filed 24 years ago, the Supreme Court did not tell legislators what to do. Instead, it ordered lawmakers and educators to work together to fix issues including decrepit buildings, an inability to attract and keep good teachers in poor districts, and inadequate busing that forces students to endure hours-long commutes. The order also faulted state funding formulas, which date to 1977, as an outdated, fractured “scheme.”

Last year, justices denied similar requests by the GOP leaders, and ordered a second round of progress reports that were due Friday. That order also required the school districts to show what their side has done to control spending, among other things.

The Legislature is “still not addressing the root problem and for that reason, the court should not vacate,” said a lawyer for the districts, Laura Hart. Education funding is “still piecemeal. It’s still fragmented. Until they deal with that, they can’t possibly hope to remedy the constitutional problems.”

Both the Senate and House reports detail their reform efforts, including new laws and education increases in the state budget that takes effect Saturday.

That includes $29 million for school buses, though Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed more than $20 million of that. Legislators expect to restore that money when they return in January. It also includes $55 million for school repairs, to be split among 51 high-poverty districts, and an additional $60 million to boost the so-called “base student cost” to $2,350 per pupil.

High-poverty districts get a greater share of that funding, which totals nearly $1.8 billion in 2017-18. But that’s still hundreds of millions of dollars short of what’s required under the 1977 Education Finance Act. The 40-year-old law, meant to fund minimal education standards of the time, requires yearly adjustments for inflation. But the Legislature hasn’t fully funded those adjustments for a decade.

The 2017-18 budget provides roughly $4 billion in total state funding for K-12 public schools. Other funding sources include the 1984 Education Improvement Act, which increased the state sales tax by a penny, and the state lottery, created in 2001. New education laws this year also include a single accountability system to rate school performance, doing away with dual state and federal systems that were confusing to parents. And both the House and Senate recently appointed new education study committees.

Legislators “continue on their course of making only incremental changes here and there, all the while ignoring the fact that the general funding scheme for our public schools is broken,” reads the districts’ report.

The House essentially affirmed districts’ case when it announced its latest panel to study education funding reforms two weeks ago, the districts’ attorneys wrote.

That announcement, attached to the House’s progress report to the court, includes a statement from House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White.

“For nearly 40 years, the General Assembly has taken a piecemeal approach to education policy and funding. We have added layers of burdensome requirements on school districts and teachers and we are now stuck with funding formulas that are overcomplicated and outdated,” White said. “We need to simplify education funding.”

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