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Summary of Supreme Court Opinion in Abbeville Case

 

 

This summary was prepared by Laura Hart, counsel to this firm, who has been involved as one of the lead Plaintiff attorneys in the Abbeville case since 1999.  Laura will continue to work on the case during the new phase ordered by the Court that requires the General Assembly to evaluate and make improvements to the public school system in this state.

 

            The South Carolina Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, et al., the school funding case referred to by some as “the equity case” or “the Corridor of Shame case,” on November 12, 2014. This lawsuit, filed more than 21 years ago by almost half of the school districts in South Carolina, resulted in a finding by our Supreme Court that the General Assembly was not fulfilling the obligation imposed on it by the South Carolina Constitution to provide an opportunity for a minimally adequate education to each child in the state.

 

            This was the second opinion by the Supreme Court in this case. In a 1999 opinion, the Abbeville I opinion, the Supreme Court held that the requirement in the Constitution that “[t]he General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the state” necessarily included some element of quality. Because the Constitution did not specify the necessary level of quality, as some state constitutions do, the Court held that it must be at least “minimally adequate.” The Supreme Court determined that the trial judge had erred in 1996 when it dismissed the case, and sent the case back to the trial court for proceedings on the question of the adequacy of the educational opportunities provided to South Carolina children.

 

            The non-jury trial of the case began in July 2003 and concluded in December 2004. The trial court issued its decision in December 2005, finding that the State was not ensuring that children living in poverty had the opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education because of “the lack of effective and adequately funded early childhood intervention programs designed to address the impact of poverty on their educational abilities and achievements.” The General Assembly responded to this decision by creating the CDEPP programs for four-year-olds in the school districts that had sued the State. The General Assembly appealed the decision that early childhood programs were necessary to provide opportunities for a minimally adequate education to children in poverty, and the districts involved in the case appealed the limitation of the remedy to early childhood programs.

 

            In its November 12, 2014 opinion, the Abbeville II opinion, the Supreme Court found in favor of the school districts, finding that the State was failing to meet its constitutional obligation of ensuring that children, particularly those living in poverty, were provided meaningful opportunities to acquire a minimally adequate education. The Court did not limit the deficiencies in the educational system to the lack of early childhood interventions, pointing also to troubling issues in student transportation, teacher qualifications and effectiveness, small school district sizes, and the effects of local legislation on the State’s efforts to meet its constitutional duties throughout the state-wide school system. It also referred to the educational funding scheme as “a fractured formula,” noting that “the cost of the educational package in South Carolina is based on a convergence of outmoded and outdated policy considerations that fail the students.”

 

            In addition to declaring that the educational system as currently constituted and implemented is unconstitutionally deficient, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of retaining jurisdiction of the case, meaning that the case will remain with the Court, and ordering the parties to reappear before the Court “within a reasonable time” to “present a plan to address the constitutional violation announced” in the opinion. The Court directed the parties to cooperatively “identify the problems facing students” and design “a strategy to address critical concerns and cure the constitutional deficiency evident in this case.” This should provide some added impetus for the State to redesign the educational system. The references in the opinion to the “fractured formula” used to fund the school system and to the problems arising from small student enrollments in some districts suggest that the Court also expects the State to revise, perhaps in very substantial aspects, the means by which the system is funded and to consider the consolidation of small districts in the same or even adjoining counties.

 

            The Abbeville II opinion requires the State to evaluate its public school system and to make changes in it that will improve its ability to educate all children. As Chief Justice Toal said in the opinion, “there is no loser” in this case. The State will benefit by a more effective and successful school system. With the momentum provided by the opinion, South Carolina has an exceptional opportunity to move forward in an area that should improve the quality of life for all its citizens.

 

Should you have any questions about the recent Abbeville decision, please feel free to contact this firm.

 

Legal Alert: Freedom Of Information Act Update

In a rather surprising decision on June 18, 2014, the State Supreme Court reversed the decision of the State Court of Appeals in Lambries v. Saluda County, which had held that the S. C. Freedom of Information Act requires 1) that an agenda must be issued for all regular meetings of a public body, which includes school boards, and 2) that the agenda generally cannot be amended just before or at a meeting of the public body.  The Supreme Court reversed both rulings.  Based on the plain meaning of the  language of the FOIA statute, the Court held that nothing in the wording of the law supported either holding of the Court of Appeals.  In what might foreshadow future action by the General Assembly, the Court stated that if the Legislature had wanted the statute to say what the Court of Appeals held the law to mean, the lawmakers could have done so in clear language. 

The High Court decision gives public bodies more control and flexibility regarding their agendas and consequently over what matters may be discussed and acted upon at their meetings.  However, as a matter of good governance and public relations, we believe school boards should continue to issue agendas with the posting of notices for their meetings, and should refrain whenever possible from adding new items, particularly action items, to their agendas immediately before or during their meetings.  Please share this Legal Alert with your Board Chair and other Board members.  If you have any questions about this new decision or how it applies to your board meetings, please feel free to contact us.

Fed's Letter on Student Discipline

On January 8, 2014, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (OCR) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (together "the Feds") issued a joint "Dear Colleague Letter" (the Letter) providing guidance on administering student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. While the Feds recognize the need to maintain safe and orderly educational environments within our schools, research has shown that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more frequently and, in some cases, more severely than their peers. Federal law prohibits public schools from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics, such as race, color and national origin.

The Letter and accompanying resource guide urge schools to review their discipline policies and practices in light of recent data indicating that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. The Letter also is critical of the use of the "zero tolerance" approach to discipline.

 Three general areas are examined in the guidance: (1) prevention and creating positive school climates; (2) developing clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address this behavior; (3) establishing fairness, equity, and continuous improvement. Although the Letter does not create any new legal mandates, it does provide guidance and recommendations and implies that continued use of "zero tolerance" policies and potentially discriminatory practices may leave schools more vulnerable to claims of unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.

According to the Letter, discriminatory discipline can be shown when (a) similarly-situated students of different races or national origins are disciplined differently for the same offense; (b) districts strictly enforce a discipline policy against members of one racial or ethnic group, while overlooking or minimizing the same violations committed by members of another group; (c) administrators or teachers intentionally targeting a racial group for "invidious" reasons, e.g., adopting a dress code policy which targets a style of clothing that students of a particular race or ethnic group are likely to wear; or (d) a teacher or administrator acts with racially discriminatory motives, e.g., the educator utters a racial or ethnic slur when disciplining a student. Districts also can violate federal law when they implement facially neutral policies that were not adopted with intent to discriminate but which nevertheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race or national origin. "Disparate impact" situations require an examination of whether a disciplinary policy resulted in an adverse impact on students of a particular race or national origin, as compared with students of other races or national origins.

The Letter offers a number of practical examples of situations in which the Feds might find discrimination in the administration of student discipline. It also sets out what the Feds consider when investigating claims of discrimination, emphasizing the importance of keeping good records on student discipline and the expectation that districts will cooperate fully in investigations conducted by OCR.

For more information about this topic, or to request assistance in reviewing your discipline polices or practices, please feel free to contact one of our attorneys.

April 2014 Dear Colleague Letter.pdf

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