The politics of the court’s abandonment of Abbeville case

sc supreme court

I had thought Cindi Scoppe was out of the country — Wales, I think — but then she had a good column over the weekend explaining why the S.C. Supreme Court had dropped the 24-year-old Abbeville case that sought equity for those who attend some of our state’s poorest schools.

Not in terms of fine points of the law. Not in terms of the merits of the case. In terms of politics.

It was headlined “Why the SC Supreme Court washed its hands of poor students.” Here’s an excerpt:

Contrary to House Speaker Jay Lucas’ declaration that the order showed the court “is satisfied by the House’s transformative efforts to improve South Carolina’s education system,” the majority actually had nothing to say about how satisfied it was or was not with the Legislature’s efforts.

Contrary to House Speaker Jay Lucas’ declaration that the order showed the court “is satisfied by the House’s transformative efforts to improve South Carolina’s education system,” the majority actually had nothing to say about how satisfied it was or was not with the Legislature’s efforts….

Basically, lawmakers let their intentions be known in the way they screened prospective justices to replace Jean Toal and Costa Pleicones:

When legislators grilled would-be justices leading up to the retirement of Justices Toal and Pliecones, they made sure the candidates understood that the court is not in fact the co-equal branch of government that the constitution claims. So for the past two years, the school districts’ Abbeville victory has existed on paper but not in reality, reduced from a mandate to act to a requirement to file annual progress reports…

Mind you, Cindi’s not at all sure that there exists a constitutional mandate that the state ensure a good education to every student. Like me, she believes that as a matter of public policy, it’s insane (and yes, immoral, for those who think I’m ignoring that) not to:

The many South Carolinians who recognize that our state cannot progress as long as we leave behind so many children are understandably upset by the court’s ruling. But we never should have needed to rely on the court to tell the Legislature to do what anyone who cares about the future of our state would do. And ultimately, it is up to all of us to demand and insist and never stop demanding and insisting that our legislators make the changes to the laws and the enforcement of those laws and, yes, the funding that are necessary to ensure that all children in this state have the decent education that we all need them to have.

Note that last part: “that we all need them to have.” It’s fine if we want to provide equality of opportunity to poor kids, if that makes us feel good about ourselves. But our collective self-interest comes into play here.

We need an educated population. All of us need that. We cannot afford to have these broad swathes of our state where people simply lack the skills to hold down a good job and contribute to the state’s prosperity and general well-being. We need capable doctors and nurses and lawyers and paralegals and air-conditioning repair people and cooks and clerks and cops and factory workers and builders and thousands of other kinds of workers. We can’t afford to live in a place where there are large bunches of people without skills.

Universal education is not so much a kindness to individuals as a pragmatic goal for the whole community.

It’s a wonderful thing to live in a country of laws. But one less-wonderful side effect of that is people sometimes think there needs to be a law that makes people do the right thing. To some extent, the Abbeville case was predicated on that.

But forget about whether the state constitution mandates a “minimally adequate education” or a “super-duper education.”

It’s just smart policy to do all we can to provide everyone with the chance to get educated. It’s that, and of course, it’s the right thing to do…

36 thoughts on “The politics of the court’s abandonment of Abbeville case

  1. Doug Ross

    According to Abbeville’s school report card, they had an 87.8% high school graduation rate with 43% eligible for the LIFE scholarship and 72.7% pursuing higher education 2017.

    Dollars spent per pupil = $9890 up from $9630 the year before. That;s only about 10% less than what the per pupil spending is in Richland 2 where I guarantee the local property taxes are much higher.

    Average teacher salary = $48,089 Up from $46,752 in 2016. It was $52K in Richland 2.

    Now here’s the interesting comparison:

    Which districts are these?

    Dollars spent per pupil District 1: $14,170 Up from $13,978
    District 2: $10,456 Up from $10,435

    #1 is Allendale. #2 is Lexington 1

    40% more spending per student. How much MORE do you want to spend to make it “equitable”? What’s the number that will relieve you of your guilt?

    And you know what — there are kids coming out of Allendale every year who are graduating high school, going on the college, and having careers. 56% of seniors were enrolled in higher ed compared to 70% across the entire state. What makes the difference for those 56% vs. the 44%? I’d guess parental involvement. You can’t fix bad parents.

    1. Doug Ross

      I realize providing facts is not the way you are supposed to deal with any “but what about the CHILDREN??!!!” topics…

      But after seeing the facts you still think we need to increase the spending in those districts, where do you want the money to come from? Raising taxes or cutting spending somewhere else. Let me guess…

        1. Doug Ross

          But we already provide everyone with an opportunity to get a great education. If we didn’t, nobody from those poor districts would ever get out. They have opportunity but the parents choose to waste it. We’re spending more money on the poorest districts and it won’t solve all the problems in the community. Parents are the key, not spending.

          The best thing we could do as a society is to convince poor women to delay giving birth until they are 25. That message should be broadcast in homes, churches, schools, and newspapers.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            “But we already provide everyone with an opportunity to get a great education. If we didn’t, nobody from those poor districts would ever get out. They have opportunity but the parents choose to waste it.”

            So what do we do about that? If you have children who don’t have parents who don’t provide the kind of support that leads to academic achievement — whether because they don’t know how to or don’t want to — what do we do about that? And remember, I’m asking this NOT from the perspective of “Oh, the poor children!” but from the perspective of, “We can’t afford to have this large portion of our population that is not prepared to play a constructive role in our society and economy?”

            It’s a problem that we, the people of South Carolina — all of us — have on our hands. So how do you propose to address this challenge?

            And don’t fall back on “These children shouldn’t have been born.” They have been born, and they’re here, so what do we do?

            1. Bob Amundson

              Invest in innovative education and training; Bill Gates’ recent $1.7 billion investment in U.S. public schools is a sign of the way forward, offering two compelling messages for policymakers. First, innovate and experiment until we identify the right policies. Second, prioritize high-needs schools in poor neighborhoods; they deserve distinct attention to close their opportunity gaps and prepare them to be competitive in the future workforce.

            2. Doug Ross

              We could try vouchers and see what happens. Couldn’t be any worse for them, could it?

              We could try offering incentives to move to other districts where there are jobs for the parents. But that would require the parents to have some degree of initiative.

              We could stop promoting kids who can’t read. But that might hurt some kids feelings.

              We could stop all sports programs at schools where the graduation rate is below 75% or SAT scores are not within one standard deviation of the state average.

              There’s plenty of things that COULD be done — but let’s just raise taxes and spend more. That’ll work.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                And none of your suggestions — such as “offering incentives to move to other districts” — will cost a dime?

                Tell you what — how about if you stop characterizing everything I say as “let’s just raise taxes and spend more,” and I won’t speak of vouchers as “throwing money at motivated parents to make them abandon public education, which is a sure way to make the system collapse.” Which is what it is, but let’s call a moratorium….

                1. Doug Ross

                  You can keep saying anything you’d like about vouchers. The difference is we’ve tried increasing spending and it hasn’t worked. You won’t even consider TRYING vouchers on a small scale for the worst districts because you’re afraid they might work.

                  But I’ll welcome any suggestions you have that don’t change net taxes or net spending in any way. Til then, I’ll reject throwing good money after bad every single time. I’ve got the evidence on my side to show that spending more doesn’t work.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Doug, please don’t ascribe motives to me, especially ones that aren’t even close to what I’m thinking.

                    Yep, I “won’t even consider TRYING vouchers on a small scale,” but of course that’s because I want to fix the schools, not just give a handful of people a way out of them. And I’m not just talking about a small trial. Even fully implemented would be impossible for vouchers to help all the kids, to give them all a shot at a better education. Only some would take advantage of them, thereby exacerbating the Darwinian situation we already have. Already, the kids likely to succeed in a poor school are the ones who have motivated, supportive parents — the very ones who would be more likely to go for vouchers, which means the kids left behind may never MEET a successful student, much less think they have a chance of succeeding themselves.

                    The point is for everybody to have a chance, not just a few…

                    1. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Not to mention what I’ve mentioned so many times before: It astounds me that people who believe in the magic of markets think a few vouchers would cause an excellent private school (one big enough to educate everybody) to pop up in a poor, thinly populated community that can’t attract a supermarket.

                      And if that doesn’t happen, the kids might as well burn the vouchers…

                    2. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Uh… what?

                      The point of public education is that we want everyone to have the same opportunities. It’s not, “Let’s let a few make it and call it good enough.”

                      Not everyone will succeed at the same level. That’s unrealistic, impossible. But they need equality of opportunity.

                      The state of South Carolina should not be running ANY substandard schools. As citizens, we should not tolerate that for a minute. But we’ve been tolerating it for generations.

                      If it’s a public school and it’s failing its students, we have an obligation to fix it. Period.

                    3. Bryan Caskey

                      I wonder what the people in these failing school districts would say if you offered them vouchers to private school for their children. How many parents would choose to send their children to other schools made available by vouchers?

                      Perhaps the entire idea of what is a “public school” and a “private school” would cease to have a meaningful distinction. You would simply have the choice of several schools. Better run schools would succeed, right?

                    4. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Well, the public schools sure as hell wouldn’t get better, as you bled off both funding and the more motivated students from them.

                      But let’s talk about your first sentence. You’re doing that thing I’m always on about: You’re thinking like a consumer rather than a citizen.

                      For the gazillionth time: If we’re unhappy with the public schools, it’s entirely in our power to fix them. We the people of South Carolina can’t do a damned thing to hold private schools accountable. We OWN the public schools.

                      And no, I’m not willing to spend money that should go to making public schools better on private schools. I don’t put faith in the cockamamie theory that the market will fix everything. I’m not willing to bet the education of our state on anything so improbable.

                    5. Bryan Caskey

                      “If it’s a public school and it’s failing its students, we have an obligation to fix it. Period.”

                      Is our obligation to the school itself or to the students?

                    6. Brad Warthen Post author

                      Neither. To ourselves. As I keep pointing out, it’s in our collective interest to have an educated population. That’s why we have public schools. It’s not a charity. It’s not something we’re doing as a personal favor to individual students. We do it in order to have a decent place to live, with a healthy economy.

                      This is why people don’t get what I’m saying a lot of the time. Folks on the left say we’ve got to save our schools! Folks on the right say, what about the kids? You’re only sticking up for the teacher’s unions! (Of course, we don’t have teacher unions in SC — there’s no collective bargaining, thank goodness — but partisans just echo the talking points from the national level.)

                      But it’s neither. We have public schools because it’s in the interests of all of us to do so…

                    7. Bryan Caskey

                      “Neither. To ourselves. As I keep pointing out, it’s in our collective interest to have an educated population. That’s why we have public schools. It’s not a charity. It’s not something we’re doing as a personal favor to individual students. We do it in order to have a decent place to live, with a healthy economy.”

                      That’s a bit of a dodge, but I agree with your ultimate point since you acknowledge the goal is to have an educated population. That’s the students. The schools are simply a means to that end. I’m in favor of using both a carrot and stick approach. The carrot is giving the schools more money, resources, etc. to help them improve. The stick is ultimately allowing parents to pull their kids out of a school that is failing.

                      I’m willing to use all the tools in the toolbox to get things fixed.

                    8. Brad Warthen Post author

                      But don’t you see, you’re choosing a tool that by its very nature will only help SOME of these students you speak of. It not only does nothing for those left behind in the failing school, but the reasonable expectation is that their situation will be MORE desperate.

                      And again, you’re erroneously applying the expectations of the marketplace. You want to use a “stick” to punish failing schools. You seem to be supposing that will make administrators go, “Uh-oh. Our policy of deliberately running a bad schools isn’t working! They’re onto us! We’d better flip this switch that has been at hand the whole time and make the schools GOOD, or it’s our phony-baloney JOBS, gentlemen! Harrumph, harrumph!”

                      Do you not see the fallacy?

                      It’s not about forcing these bad people to start running good schools. Improving these schools is OUR responsibility. It’s up to all of us. And it’s unconscionable for us to abandon that responsibility by paying people to abandon the schools…

                    9. Bryan Caskey

                      I don’t think there are people out there deliberately running bad schools. However, I leave room in my mind that there are people out there running schools who are basically on auto-pilot and don’t really care that much.

                      And yeah, perhaps vouchers aren’t the ideal solution. However, as you said, the schools have been substandard for “generations”. It’s a tough issue and I acknowledge that it can’t be totally solved by the school. At a certain point, you have to be an engaged parent who instills the value of learning in your child.

                      For instance, my six year old loves to read and learn because my wife and I have instilled that value in him. He sees us reading all the time, and he wants to be a reader. He wants to do well in math because ever since he’s seen the Blue Angels he’s wanted to be a pilot, and I’ve repeatedly told him “If you want to be a pilot, you have to be really good at math.” He’s internalized that, and he does math worksheets to get better. Voluntarily.

                      For instance, last night my wife and I went out to dinner with the kids. A lot of times, we’ll take some coloring sheets and crayons for them to use during a meal while waiting for dinner. Last night, Henry asked for math worksheets instead of coloring sheets. During dinner, he sat there and quite happily worked on math worksheets before the food came with me helping him and then “grading” his paper. After we got home, I read to him for about thirty minutes from his favorite chapter book in the Magic Treehouse series. (Eventually, I’ll get him onto Patrick O’Brian, don’t worry.)

                      Point is, Henry is going to be good at math and reading no matter what. Even if he were in the worst school, my wife and I wouldn’t allow him to be uneducated. Teachers act in loco parentis, but even the best teacher can’t do it alone. Sure, improving schools is part of the issue. It’s a big part. But fixing our culture is arguably more important, and I don’t know how you do that.

                2. Doug Ross

                  Your dream candidate , John Kasich, is one of the biggest proponents of vouchers in the U.S. He quadrupled the number of vouchers in Ohio and made it a key component of his education platform. He’s got evidence to show it works. What’s he know that you don’t?

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Nobody’s perfect. His flaws in this regard are outweighed by other virtues. For instance, he is not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Nor is he Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz. So give the guy some credit, since he’s got all that going for him. 🙂

                    By the way, you know we already have tuition tax credits on the limited sort of basis you propose, don’t we?

                3. Bob Amundson

                  Brad’s view is a philosophy in ethics called “enlightened self interest,” which states that individuals who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.

                4. Doug Ross

                  “individuals who act to further the interests of others”

                  Act or talk about others acting? and talk about using the resources of others to accomplish those self-interested goals?

                  I believe it is in ALL of our best interest to do whatever we can to discourage young poor women from having children. In fact, that’s the BEST solution for everyone (including those children who would not be born into poverty).

                5. Barry

                  Vouchers for the vast, vast majority of students in poor districts are a joke and a sure dead end.

                  Dumb idea. .

              2. Richard

                We could go back to real grading, not university style grading.
                A = 100-94 vs. 100-90
                B = 93 – 88 vs. 89-80
                C = 87 – 81 vs. 79 – 70
                D = 80 – 74 vs 69 – 60
                F = 73 – 0 vs. 59 – 0

                1. Barry

                  We could if we wanted to shoot our foot off to see how much fun it would be.

                  But that doesn’t make sense either.

          1. Doug Ross

            I dunno. I’m on Earth. What planet are you on? That’s the only way your statement would be 100% true, “Barry”.

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