During the waning moments of the recently departed 2005, Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper ruled that South Carolina does not provide a minimally adequate education in eight rural school districts because early childhood education programs are not properly funded.

Now there’s a shocker, thought The Eye.

In a partial victory for the state, the judge found that the General Assembly provided safe, adequate school buildings, appropriate learning criteria, and credential requirements that ensured “minimally competent teachers.”

Cooper’s 173-page opinion brought to close a lawsuit that began in November of 1993 when 40 impoverished school districts (out of the then 91 districts across the state) and 20 taxpayers brought a complaint against the state challenging the legislature’s method of funding public education.

In September 1996, Cooper granted a defense motion to dismiss the case because the school districts did not have legal standing to challenge the funding method.

Here in The Palmetto State, where public education is paid lip service and little else by the General Assembly, The Eye thought that was it … game over.

But then, surprise surprise, the plaintiffs appealed, and in April of 1999, the SC Supreme Court reversed Cooper’s ruling and said that the General Assembly had a duty to ensure an opportunity for “each child to receive a minimally adequate education.”

The trial began in Clarendon County in July 2003 and ended in December 2004. Cooper’s ruling came in a little over a year after the conclusion of the trial, which featured testimony from 70 witnesses and more than 5,000 documents.

Cooper said many things in his ruling and for this The Eye is hopeful, “The Court … concludes that the constitutional requirement of adequate funding is not met by the defendants as a result of their failure to adequately fund early childhood intervention programs.”

Cooper went on, “Moreover, early childhood intervention from pre-kindergarten to grade three has not received the priority needed to be an effective force in minimizing the impact of poverty on educational abilities and achievement throughout the educational process.”

Cooper did agree with the defendant’s contention that the school buildings were adequate because failing schools have received targeted aid from the state since the 1990s, but those funds for “remediating” impoverished schools “has been largely ineffective because they come too late.”

Secretary of Education Inez Tenenbaum told The State, “It’s a win for the children who are in need of early childhood education … It’s a disappointment for rural school districts who had anticipated having more resources to replace outdated and old school buildings. And it’s a disappointment for plaintiff districts hoping to get state assistance to raise teacher salaries.”

Carl Epps, who filed the original lawsuit in 1993, told The State, “I think it is, overall, an historical day — a positive day for all of South Carolina. It might provide us with the impetus to improve our educational system.”

It looks like there won’t be an appeal of Cooper’s decision — something The Eye finds mildly surprising given the propensity of General Assembly members to get their shorts into a twist whenever anyone tells them how to budget something.

Gov. Mark Sanford said that the state shouldn’t throw good money after bad, “We’ve said since day one that the best way to make a difference in children’s education is to make a difference early and this ruling clearly says the state isn’t doing enough on that front in many cases. Rather than appeal this ruling, we should focus our energies as a state on improving the quality of education for the students that need it most.”

That’s rich, thought The Eye, this from a guy who sends his own kids to private school and advocates school vouchers.

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