Throughout our history, we have failed to educate all of the children in our state.
Early on, we didn’t educate children who were black or poor. In the 20th century, we said we would educate all children. But we didn’t really, not if they lived in poor districts, not in a way that would prepare them to become productive, taxpaying citizens. And as employers demanded more and more, these uneducated children became less and less valuable to society, dragging down their families, their communities, our entire state.
We call it the Corridor of Shame, that stretch of poor, rural communities that snakes through the Pee Dee along Interstate-95. But while the state of education in those communities is shameful, the shame ultimately lands at our State House.
It’s shameful that our poorest school districts had to sue our Legislature to force it to give their children the same opportunity to get a good education as the children in Lexington and Greenville and Charleston and Columbia.
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It’s shameful that even after the lawsuit was filed, even after our legislators no longer could pretend not to know, they still refused to do what was morally right and ultimately in all of our self-interest.
It’s shameful that we allowed them to ignore the problem.
It’s shameful that our Supreme Court allowed that case to drag on for 21 years before it finally ruled on Wednesday that the state is failing its constitutional obligation to provide those children with an education that will allow them to become productive members of society.
Only three justices agreed that our constitution compels the Legislature to act. But even the other two agreed with the point that our editorial board has made for decades: Regardless of what the constitution requires, our Legislature has a political and moral obligation, for the good not only of those children but of our entire state, to provide them a decent education.
The court did not tell the Legislature how to do that, didn’t proscribe a certain amount of money to allocate; to the contrary, it went out of its way, repeatedly, to say that merely spending more money was not the solution. It also emphasized that the poor districts had squandered what resources they had.
But the way forward begins with the court’s observation that the Legislature has never even made “a comprehensive effort” to determine how to fix the problem.
“It is time,” Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote for the majority, “for the Defendants to take a broader look at the principal causes for the unfortunate performance of students in the Plaintiff Districts, beyond mere funding. Fixing the violation identified in this case will require lengthy and difficult discussions regarding the wisdom of continuing to enact multiple statutes which have no demonstrated effect on educational problems, or attempting to address deficiencies through underfunded and structurally impaired programming.”
To the moral and practical obligation that always has existed, our high court now has added a legal imperative. Our legislators must put aside their political discomfort and make the changes in policies and in funding that will ensure that children in South Carolina receive the education that is necessary for them to live productive lives, regardless of where they live.
It is not just time. It is past time.