A recent North Carolina Supreme Court decision is forcing the state to allocate nearly $800 million to the education system, a move that could influence other states facing challenges over the adequacy of public school funding
In a 4-3 ruling on Nov. 4, the North Carolina Supreme Court took the matter out of the hands of the legislature after nearly 30 years of legal wrangling, directing officials to wire funds directly from the Treasury to agencies managing the Oversee education and teacher training.
“Far too many North Carolina schoolchildren, particularly those who have historically been marginalized, are denied their constitutional right to an opportunity for a solid basic education,” wrote Associate Justice Robin Hudson in the majority opinion Hoke County Board of Education v. North Carolina. The state, she said, “has demonstrated — for a generation — either unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty.”
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Part of a wave of lawsuits from the 1990s challenging unfair school funding systems was the case — first known as Leandro vs. North Carolina — Shed the lack of educational opportunities in five rural counties, where underqualified teachers, scarce materials and outdated textbooks were the norm. The plaintiff counties contended that the state was responsible for filling the funding gap between poor and affluent counties.
The case went to court despite the state running a budget surplus after the Great Recession. Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, said the ruling sends a signal to other states that lawmakers cannot ignore the law.
“The games lawmakers are playing are … wars on education rights, wars on the constitution,” said Black, who attended “marathon” hearings on the case while he was a law student at the University of North Carolina. “When the judiciary speaks, there is no other option.”
Republicans, who dominate the legislature, are already pushing back, and with the GOP winning a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court in last week’s election, some are considering the possibility of a reversal.
“Prognosis: Not a penny of taxpayer money will ultimately be spent on this unprecedented and unconstitutional order before it is blocked and reversed by a newly installed NC Supreme Court next year.” tweeted Brent Woodcox, a Republican Senior Policy Counsel for the North Carolina Legislature.
In his dissent on the case, Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. set the stage for a backlash. He wrote that the ruling “deprives” the legislature of its authority over education policy and funding and amounts to a “damaging expansion of judicial power.”
But in the majority view, Hudson attempted to narrow the scope of the ruling, writing that it applies “in exactly one case” — in this case — and would not have been necessary if “recalcitrant state actors” had addressed the funding inequalities.
Lawrence Picus, a school funding expert at the University of Southern California, said the closest example of this ruling he saw was a 2015 Washington Supreme Court order that flouted state legislatures and up until then fined $100,000 a day Lawmakers agreed on a way to adequately fund schools, as required by the court’s opinion McCleary v. Washington State.
That day didn’t come until June 2018, when the court ruled that the state had increased the education budget enough to comply with the regulations. Penalties, which by that time had reached over $100 million, also went to schools.
“Courts are generally very reluctant to impose anything on the legislature,” Picus said. “In North Carolina, they do it for her.”
Financing of the “remediation plan”.
Originally named for Hoke County Schools student Robb Leandro and his mother, the North Carolina case began in 1994 when families from five rural counties sued the state and its board of education. The lack of well-qualified teachers, they argued, meant that students were less likely than students in more affluent countries to be proficient in core subjects and able to enter college without tutoring.
Despite the trial court siding with the plaintiffs year after year, lawmakers never complied with the orders, cutting per-student funding by an additional 13.9% after the Great Recession, according to one analysis.
But then the financial picture improved — greatly — and this year the state has a $6 billion surplus.
A year ago, the trial court ordered the state to spend $1.7 billion to help fund an eight-year “remediation plan” developed by WestEd, a consulting firm. The funds would cover teacher and principal training, revising the school funding formula and expanding the state’s pre-K system.
The state later passed a budget that partially funded the plan, and the court corrected the figure to $785 million. The judgment of the Supreme Court confirms this decision.
Republican House Speaker Tim Moore told local reporters that lawmakers plan to “reconsider” the ruling, while attorneys from Parker Poe, a law firm representing the plaintiffs, said it wasn’t an option.
“Whether they agree or not”
Like Black, Ann McColl has seen her legal career intertwine with her Leandro Saga. As co-founder of The Innovation Project, a school leadership network, she represented and wrote briefs in the case on behalf of educators and school board associations.
“It’s always like, people react to a court decision and see how they can get around it,” she said. But North Carolina lawmakers, she added, are showing “certain force” in their objections.
Black sees the possibility that the ruling will affect a Pennsylvania school funding process. Earlier this year, an appeals court spent four months hearing testimony in the case, with attorneys for legislative leaders arguing that students don’t have to go to college if they’re on “the McDonald’s rail.” The case is expected to go all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Related: “A system that strands children”: After months of testimony, Pennsylvania’s historic school-funding process is coming to an end — with dire consequences for low-income children
Until now, Black added, the so-called “Rose Decision” of 1989 in Kentucky was considered the most powerful decision in school funding. The state Supreme Court ruled that the entire Kentucky education system was unconstitutional and defined the elements of an adequate education.
North Carolina’s decision goes further by stipulating that schools do not have to wait for lawmakers to act.
“The court just put up a flag post,” Black said, “and every single court that deals with this issue in the future will consider that flag post, whether they agree with it or not.”