In 1993, Bill Clinton became president of the United States for the first time. The movie “Unforgiven” won the Oscar for the Best Picture of the Year. A 51-day stand-off at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, ended with a fire that killed 76 people, including David Koresh. The Unabomber’s first bomb injured computer scientist David Gelernter at Yale University. The first version of Microsoft’s Windows NT operating systems was released. Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize. “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston was the number one song.
In South Carolina, the USC football coach was Sparky Woods and the team went 5-6. The Clemson Coach was Ken Hatfield and the Tigers went 9-3. The Governor was Carrol Campbell. Miss South Carolina Kimberly Aiken was crowned Miss America. The Carolina Panthers franchise was awarded to a group of S.C. and N.C. investors. The courts ruled that Shannon Faulkner must be admitted as the first woman at the Citadel. Strom Thurmond was only 91 years old.
And, in Lee County, a 17 year old named William dropped out of Lee Central High School – and a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Lee County School District and 38 other districts charging that the state did not provide “minimally adequate” education to children in the state’s poorest school districts.
The case went to court; it was called the Abbeville Case – and the students and parents of South Carolina waited.
Imagine, William is now 40 years old. After he dropped out of school, he eventually got a job in a filling station because he was ‘good with cars.’ He married his high school sweetheart named Annie who also dropped out of school. Through the years they were on and off of government assistance as they got and lost a series of low paying jobs. They had a daughter named Chrystal. She too dropped out of high school and now has an $8.50 an hour job at The Dollar General Store and a daughter named Bess – the father left before the child was born.
On Nov.11, 2014, the S.C. State Supreme Court – after 21 years – ruled that the state must fix our failing school system.
Yes, for 21 years the lawyers argued, the state resisted and the children did not learn.
“Thousands of South Carolina’s schoolchildren – the quintessential future of our state – have been denied this opportunity, due to no more than historical accident,” said Chief Justice Jean Toal at the time of the 2014 ruling.
And now, in June 2016, the state Legislature has still done virtually nothing.
They recently adjourned for the year having passed only a few token bills that one knowledgeable observer said “didn’t do 1% of what needs to be done.”
In fact – we are gaining speed in the wrong direction with education funding.
For the last six years, the Legislature has cut education spending in real dollars – and cut it the most in the poorest school districts. According to an Appleseed Legal Foundation study, state education spending decreased most in the poorest districts between 2008 and 2014. Spending went down 14.7% in the 15 districts with highest poverty and only 5.4% in districts with the lowest poverty rates.
And it’s getting worse. The same study found that in 2015-16, funding in these 15 poorest districts went down 0.9% while funding in the districts with the lowest poverty levels actually went up 9.0%.
Part of the job of folks like me who write columns about issues such as this is to ‘clarify the issue’ – to sort through all the facts and figures and the rhetoric and lay it all out in plain language for our readers.
So here it is plain and simple: there is a hero and a villain.
While others have done a lot, the singular hero is the Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough law firm led by former Gov. Richard Riley and attorney Carl Epps. Riley and his team launched this suit and carried it on for all these years – at no cost. They have literally spent millions of dollars on this case. Here is the law firm’s website (www.nelsonmullins.com). Tell them they are a hero and thank them for what they have done.
(Full disclosure: I’m President of the SC New Democrats and former Gov. Richard Riley was the founder. I am sure he would not want me to tell you to thank his law firm – but they deserve it.)
And the villain in this is the S.C. Legislature. While others have contributed to the problem, the current S.C. Legislature is the singular villain in all this because they have not fixed the problem – and they can. They have simply refused to act. You can find the list of the leadership and your House and Senate member at this website, www.SCStateHouse.gov, and contact them and demand that they do the right thing.
So we end where we began – asking how long?
How long will it be before the S.C. Legislature does what they should do – what they were ordered by the Supreme Court to do?
And, most importantly, how long will it be before we provide the schools that William, Annie, Crystal and young Bess deserve?
It’s been 23 years and we are still waiting.