COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - In a ruling that's been more than two decades in the making, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled legislators have failed to ensure that their students receive the opportunity to succeed.
The lawsuit was originally brought against the state in November 1993 by some of the poorest school districts. They claimed legislators failed to provide adequate funding in poor, rural areas.
Wednesday, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the districts. Attorney Laura Callaway Hart, who worked on the case, couldn't be happier.
"The Supreme Court did what we asked them to do and that is to find that the state is not providing access to meaningful opportunities for education for each child," Callaway Hart said. "It took longer than anyone thought it would take and I'm sure the Supreme Court wishes they could have come out with a decision earlier, but it's a complicated case. There are a lot of thorny issues involved and a lot of evidence they had to plow through."
The Supreme Court's ruling does not tell legislators how to fix the problems. The General Assembly must design a system to ensure each child has access to meaningful education.
"It's an opportunity for the state government and for the plaintiffs and for the state as a whole, to work on this and to come up with something that's going to be a benefit to everyone," Callaway Hart said.
University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black says it's not just about money, the focus also should be on teachers.
"We have to figure out, how do we attract and recruit and retain highly qualified teachers in the 'Corridor of Shame,'" Black said. "We need to make the schools in which these people teach places that support them, value them, and make it a place they want to show up to work every day."
Callaway Hart agrees.
"It's our responsibility to make sure that our teachers are prepared and capable, delivering that opportunity to those children," Callaway Hart said.
Black mentioned the Corridor of Shame, a term coined by documentary filmmaker Bud Ferillo used to describe the state's poorest districts that are all along Interstate 95. Ferillo released the documentary in 2006 and has been fighting for the schools ever since.
"South Carolina has a history of sluggishness when it comes to change," Ferillo said. "Robert Kennedy once said that progress is a nice word, but change is a motivator and change has its enemies. But this decision, even though it took 21 years is a great victory for the people of South Carolina and the kids, about 138,000 of them trapped in these rural schools."
Ferillo understands the "Corridor of Shame" moniker and the documentary may have helped shine a light on the issue many would have ignored.
"It has a resonance with people," Ferillo said. "Some people locally naturally resent it or are uncomfortable with it. But discomfort is a motivator. Shame is a motivator. And while it wasn't my intention to intimidate anybody, the purpose was to educate, to teach, to shed light and turn up the heat."
As for the General Assembly, there is no exact time frame for when a plan must be presented to the justices, though the ruling states it needs to be done "within a reasonable time."
Ferillo thinks that could be soon.
"I think the winds began to change in favor of a renewed commitment to public education this year," Ferillo said. "The formula for distribution of state funds to poverty districts was increased by ten percent. And pre-K was extended. They did not get full funding up to where it was five years ago. About $100 million dollars short of where we were five years ago. But I think this legislature and this governor and now the court is finally committed to making extraordinary changes over time.